Delayed antibiotics for symptoms and complications of respiratory infections

G K P Spurling, C B Del Mar, L Dooley, R Foxlee
Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2004, (4): CD004417

BACKGROUND: The use of antibiotics for upper respiratory tract infections is controversial. Any benefits have to be weighed against common adverse reactions (including rash, abdominal pain, diarrhoea and vomiting), cost and antibacterial resistance. There has been interest in ways to reduce antibiotic prescribing for acute respiratory infections. One is delaying the use of prescribed antibiotics by more than 48 hours for acute upper respiratory tract infections. Such methods have been shown to reduce prescribing. This review asks what effect this practice has on the clinical course of the illness.

OBJECTIVES: To evaluate the clinical effect of delayed antibiotic use in acute upper respiratory tract infections compared to immediate use of antibiotics

SEARCH STRATEGY: The following electronic databases were searched: the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL) (The Cochrane Library Issue 1, 2004) which includes the Acute Respiratory Infection Groups' specialised register; MEDLINE (January 1966 to January Week 1 2004), EMBASE (1990 to September 2003) and Current Contents (1998 to 2003). The search was carried out by an expert librarian. Abstracts of identified articles were used to determine which studies were trials.

SELECTION CRITERIA: Randomised controlled trials involving patients of all ages defined as having acute otitis media, acute pharyngitis, sore throat, common cold, a viral upper respiratory tract infection, acute sinusitis, and acute bronchitis were included in which delayed antibiotics are compared to antibiotics used immediately. Delayed antibiotic use was defined as the use of or advice to use antibiotics more than 48 hours after the initial consultation. 'Immediate antibiotic use' was defined as the immediate use of oral antibiotics given at the initial consultation. Clinical outcomes measured included: the presence or absence of fever, cough, pain, duration and severity of illness, complications of the disease, adverse effects from the antibiotics. Trial quality was assessed independently by two reviewers who were blinded to the author, journal and results of each study.

DATA COLLECTION AND ANALYSIS: Data was collected by two reviewers who were blinded to the author and journal. Data were analysed and reported using RevMan.

MAIN RESULTS: Seven trials were eligible on the basis of design and all reported patient-centred outcomes. Methodological quality of included trials was generally high. There was no difference between immediate and delayed antibiotic groups for symptoms on day one and day seven. For most symptom measures there was no significant difference between the immediate and delayed antibiotic groups. Missing data and marked heterogeneity between study outcomes prevented pooling of results as a meta-analysis. Three studies out of six reporting fever, all involving patients with sore throat, indicated that there was more fever in the delayed antibiotic group. The remaining three studies showed no difference. There was no significant symptom difference for patients with cough or the common cold between the two intervention groups. Pain and malaise severity scores at day three significantly favoured the immediate antibiotic group in children with acute otitis media (Little 2001). In this study by Little 2001 of children with otitis media proxies for other malaise related outcomes were reported, including 'last day of crying' which favoured the immediate antibiotic group by approximately 16 hours (0.69 days; 95% CI 0.31 to 1.07). In the same study, just over half a spoon of paracetamol a day less was used in the immediate antibiotic group (0.59; 95% CI 0.25 to 0.93). There was no significant difference between the intervention groups for the adverse outcome of rash. Two studies reported the outcome of vomiting which was reduced in the immediate antibiotic group in children with suspected streptococcal pharyngitis in El-Daher 1991 but there was no difference in children with sore throat in Little 1997. Diarrhoea was reported by three studies of which two showed no difference Little 1997; Arroll 2002a while Little 2001 reported less diarrhoea in the delayed antibiotic group in children with otitis media.

REVIEWERS' CONCLUSIONS: When considering treatment options for upper respiratory tract infections, the option of delayed antibiotics has been used in an attempt to reduce the use of antibiotic prescriptions. This review shows that for all symptom scores the evidence varies between trials. Most symptom outcomes show no difference between immediate and delayed antibiotic groups. Three of the six studies, all involving patients with sore throat, indicated that patients in the delayed antibiotic group had significantly more fever that their counterparts in the immediate antibiotic group. The other three showed no difference for the outcome of fever. There is evidence indicating that for children with otitis media, pain and malaise scores are worse in the delayed antibiotic group compared to the immediate antibiotic group. This price must be weighed up against the benefits of reduced antibiotic prescribing. Future randomised controlled trials of delaying antibiotics as an intervention should fully report symptoms as well as changes of prescription rates.

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