Antibiotics for upper respiratory tract infections: an overview of Cochrane reviews

Respir Med. 2005 Mar;99(3):255-61. doi: 10.1016/j.rmed.2004.11.004.


Objectives: The aim of this paper is to review the four Cochrane reviews of antibiotics for upper respiratory tract infections.

Methods: Each Cochrane review was read and summarized, and results presented as odds ratios (as in the Internet version) and, where relevant, numbers needed to treat.

Results: The reviews of antibiotics for acute otitis media have concluded that benefit is not great with a number needed to treat for a benefit (NNTB) of 15. Recent US guidelines are recommending a delay in prescriptions in children over the age of 6 months. For streptococcal tonsillitis, the Cochrane reviewers suggest that antibiotic use seems to be discretionary rather than prohibited or mandatory. This is because the benefit in terms of symptoms is only about 16h (NNTB from 2 to 7 at day 3 for pain) compared with placebo, and that serious complications, such as rheumatic fever and glomerulonephritis, are now rare in developed countries. The reviewers do, however, suggest that antibiotics are considered in populations in whom these complications are more common. This is an area of debate, as the Infectious Disease Society of America (2002) recommends routine treatment. [Clin. Infect. Dis. 35 (2002) 113] There is good evidence and consensus that there is no indication for antibiotics for the common cold. The situation with acute purulent rhinitis is less clear, as new evidence suggests that antibiotics may be effective for acute purulent rhinitis (NNTB from 6 to 8). However, as most people with acute purulent rhinitis improve without antibiotics, giving antibiotics is not justified as an initial treatment. For acute maxillary sinusitis, the evidence suggests that antibiotics are effective for people with radiologically confirmed sinusitis. The reviewers suggest that clinicians should weigh up the modest benefits (NNTB from 3 to 6) against the potential for adverse effects.

Conclusion: The use of antibiotics for acute otitis media, sore throat and streptococcal tonsillitis, common cold and acute purulent rhinitis, and acute maxillary sinusitis seems to be discretionary rather than prohibited or mandatory, at least for non-severe cases.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Acute Disease
  • Anti-Infective Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Common Cold / drug therapy
  • Evidence-Based Medicine
  • Humans
  • Maxillary Sinusitis / drug therapy
  • Otitis Media / drug therapy
  • Pharyngitis / drug therapy
  • Respiratory Tract Infections / drug therapy*
  • Rhinitis / drug therapy
  • Suppuration / drug therapy


  • Anti-Infective Agents