Randomized placebo-controlled trials of antibiotics for acute bronchitis: a critical review of the literature

J Fam Pract. 1993 May;36(5):507-12.


Background: Acute bronchitis is a common clinical problem that causes considerable morbidity and presents both diagnostic and treatment dilemmas for the physician. An evaluation of all published randomized controlled trials of antibiotics in the treatment of acute bronchitis was conducted to (1) quantitatively assess methodologic rigor, (2) determine if effectiveness of antimicrobial therapy is known, and (3) analyze strengths and weaknesses of randomized controlled trials in family practice settings.

Methods: A scoring system for the evaluation of randomized controlled trials was adapted for this study. Four raters, who were blinded to which journals published the studies and the type of antibiotic used in each study, assessed the six-randomized clinical trials for treatment of bronchitis identified through a literature search. The trials were rated according to criteria that measured internal validity.

Results: Scores for internal validity ranged from 65.5 to 102.5 points with a maximum possible score of 120 points (54.6% to 85.4%). The two trials with the highest scores assessed doxycycline and showed no benefit from use of this antibiotic. Single trials that studied erythromycin and trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole showed improvement in outcome from use of these drugs; however, of the six trials, these two studies ranked fourth and fifth for internal validity. Low scores resulted from small sample size, possible contamination with other treatment measures, and poor assessment of subjects' compliance with antibiotic regimen.

Conclusions: An evaluation of the current literature does not support antibiotic treatment for acute bronchitis. Further studies of this common illness are indicated. It is hoped that this critical review of randomized control trials will prove useful in the planning of future studies, in placing greater emphasis on methodologic rigor, and in giving greater consideration to the practical constraints of research in the family practice setting.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Acute Disease
  • Anti-Bacterial Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Bronchitis / drug therapy*
  • Erythromycin / therapeutic use
  • Family Practice
  • Humans
  • Placebos
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic
  • Treatment Outcome
  • Trimethoprim, Sulfamethoxazole Drug Combination / therapeutic use


  • Anti-Bacterial Agents
  • Placebos
  • Erythromycin
  • Trimethoprim, Sulfamethoxazole Drug Combination