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This month the American Academy of Pediatrics updated the guidelines for management of sinus infections in children (1-18 years of age) in the June edition of Pediatrics, available online.
Many parents bring kids in to the doctor for green or yellow runny noses because they're worried about bacterial sinusitis. Sinuses can be infected with viruses or produce mucus from allergies, so not all sinus infections are bacterial. Most of these kids do not need antibiotics to get better, but the guidelines help determine who might benefit from them and when to change an antibiotic if not improving. The guidelines are based on duration of symptoms and severity, not the color of the drainage, how much drainage there is, or fancy testing. Only infections caused by bacteria need antibiotics. Overuse of antibiotics can lead to resistance (so when there is a severe infection it becomes more difficult to treat), side effects (such as diarrhea), or allergic responses.
Unfortunately, a physical exam is not helpful in distinguishing a simple viral cold and cough from a bacterial sinus infection, but is needed to identify other problems that might complicate the picture, such as pneumonia or an ear infection. The inside of the nose can be swollen and various shades of pink, red or blue in sinus infections from bacteria or other causes. How often have I palpated those sinuses to see if tender, yet I know from personal experience that mine hurt when my allergies flare-- certainly not a reason for antibiotics!
I wish there was a simple test, but nose swabs for culture have not been found to be accurate in predicting bacterial cause of the infection. Imaging studies are not needed to help diagnose sinusitis because the inflammation seen in pictures can be from other causes, not just bacterial.
Most cases of runny nose, fever, and/or cough are due to a viral illness. The nasal discharge usually starts clear, but can become thick and discolor over time for several days. It often goes back to a thinner, clear color before resolving without antibiotics. Fever in a typical viral illness tends to be the first several days, and may precede the other symptoms. Fever usually resolves by day 3, when the nasal discharge and cough tend to worsen. Symptoms tend to peak between the 3rd and 6th day, then resolve after about 10 days. (Though some studies show longer.) Back to back infections are common in kids, especially during the winter months, which can be confused with one prolonged sinus infection.
Guidelines to diagnose and treat acute bacterial sinusitis in a nutshell:
- Symptoms in a child with upper respiratory infection suggest acute bacterial sinusitis if:
- there is persistent illness (nasal discharge or daytime cough) of 10 days without improvement. This persistence can be difficult to distinguish from back to back viral illnesses, so a careful review of symptoms is important.
- there are worsening symptoms (nasal discharge, cough, fever) after initial improvement. (New in the 2013 guidelines.)
- there is severe onset (fever over 102.2F and discolored nasal discharge for at least 3 consecutive days). Several viral infections, notably influenza, can cause severe onset of symptoms, but a clue to the bacterial nature is the combination of fever with mucus in the initial days, since the fever usually comes before the mucus in many viral illnesses.
- Observation without antibiotic is acceptable with a persistent infection over 10 days for another 3 days if there was not a severe onset or worsening of symptoms. (This differs from the 2001 guidelines to use an antibiotic for symptoms of 10 days.)
- Imaging is not recommended to diagnose routine sinusitis. Plain x-rays, computed tomography (CT), magnetic imaging (MRI), and ultrasounds (US) cannot distinguish between viral, bacterial, or allergic nature of the inflammation.
- If there is a suspicion of extension of the infection outside of the sinus cavities, such as into the eye orbit or central nervous system, a contrast-enhanced CT scan is indicated. These might be suspected if the eyelid is swollen and the mobility of the eye is decreased, sensitivity to light, severe headache, seizures, or other neurologic changes.
- When antibiotics are indicated, amoxicillin or amoxicillin with clavulanate (Augmentin) is the first line choice unless there are documented allergies to penicillins. If there are allergies or failure to respond to the amoxicillin, a cephalosporin may be used. There are other good choices, but studies do not show that azithromycin (Zithromax) or trimethoprim sulfamethoxazole (Bactrim) are good choices because they aren't effective against the most common bacteria of bacterial sinus infections. The duration to take an antibiotic is not well identified. Recommendations vary from 10 to 28 days, or 7 days from the time symptoms go away. This will vary by prescriber's preference and experience.
- If there are worsening of symptoms or failure to improve within 72 hours of initial visit, a repeat evaluation is recommended. If no other source of symptoms is found on physical exam, adding an antibiotic (if not previously initiated during the observation period) or changing the antibiotic is recommended.
- There was not enough evidence to support other treatments, such as decongestants, antihistamines, nasal corticosteroids, or saline rinses. More studies in children are needed to validate whether these are effective or not. There's always more to learn!