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Are antibiotics effective for acute purulent rhinitis? Systematic review and meta-analysis of placebo controlled randomised trials

BMJ 2006; 333 doi: (Published 03 August 2006) Cite this as: BMJ 2006;333:279
  1. B Arroll (b.arroll{at}, professor1,
  2. T Kenealy, senior lecturer1
  1. 1 Department of General Practice and Primary Health Care, University of Auckland, Private Bag 92019, Auckland, New Zealand
  1. Correspondence to: B Arroll
  • Accepted 7 June 2006


Objective To systematically review the evidence for the effectiveness of antibiotics in acute purulent rhinitis (many guidelines advise against their use on the basis of one study that showed no effect).

Data sources Medline, Embase, Cochrane Register of Controlled Trials, and reference lists of retrieved articles.

Review methods Meta-analysis of data from double blind randomised placebo controlled trials comparing antibiotics with placebo for acute purulent rhinitis (duration less than 10 days).

Results Seven studies were retrieved; four contributed data on benefits of antibiotics, and four contributed data on harms of antibiotics. The pooled relative risk of benefit for persistent purulent rhinitis at five to eight days with antibiotics was 1.18 (95% confidence interval 1.05 to 1.33). The numbers needed to treat ranged from 7 to 15 when the pooled relative risk was applied to the range of control event rates. The relative risk for adverse effects with antibiotics was 1.46 (1.10 to 1.94). The numbers needed to harm for adverse effects ranged from 12 to 78. No serious harms were reported in the placebo arms.

Conclusions Antibiotics are probably effective for acute purulent rhinitis. They can cause harm, usually in the form of gastrointestinal effects. Most patients will get better without antibiotics, supporting the current “no antibiotic as first line” advice.


  • Contributors Both authors reviewed the abstracts resulting from the search, extracted the data, and wrote the paper. BA did the analysis and is the guarantor.

  • Funding The initial Cochrane review “Antibiotics for the common cold” (1998) was funded by the Charitable Trust of the Auckland Faculty of the Royal New Zealand College of General Practitioners. This specific review was not funded by any external agency. The authors' salaries were from University of Auckland staff funding.

  • Competing interests: BA is a member of the Future Forum, an educational foundation funded by AstraZeneca UK, and a committee member of the Pharmac seminar series (Pharmac is the New Zealand government funding agency for drugs).

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