Monday, January 27, 2014

Can We Escape Antibiotics in Sore Throat?

Yes.  And no.

It is well-established complications of acute sore throat are incredibly rare.  The likelihood of a patient developing the most concerning of suppurative complications – a peritonsillar abscess or “quinsy” – is less than a fraction of a percent.  Rheumatic fever is virtually eliminated in the United States.  Yet, as we see from this British cohort, over half of patients visiting primary care received a prescription for antibiotics.

This is study reports on a combination of several, prospectively gathered cohorts presenting with acute sore throat to British primary care practices.  Comprising 14,610 adults, only 5,243 escaped the physicians office without an antibiotic prescription, while the remainder received immediate or delayed antibiotics.  Suppurative complications across all cohorts – peritonsillar abscess, sinusitis, otitis media, and cellulitis – ranged from 0.1% to 0.6%.

Unfortunately, this is not a randomized trial – the patients who were given antibiotics by their physician had much more severe initial clinical presentations.  This means, unfortunately, there is no information in this data set describing the actual protective effect of antibiotics without making statistical contortions.  The main value, however, is in describing the futility of clinical judgement for selecting patients for antibiotics.  Of all the various clinical features recorded prospectively for each patient, only severe ear pain and severely inflamed tonsils were significant predictors of suppurative complications – with ORs of 3.02 and 1.92, respectively.  However, these still constituted hundreds of patients with symptoms who otherwise did not progress.  High scores on the Centor and FeverPAIN criteria were similarly, minimally predictive.

In the end, it is ultimately apparent antibiotics confer some protective effect.  The absolute benefit, however, will represent just a handful of patients out of thousands.  The authors sum it up just as nicely as I might:
“Since a policy of liberal antibiotic prescription for sore throat to prevent complications is highly unlikely to be cost effective, and clinicians cannot rely on clinical targeting to predict most complications, clinicians will need to rely on strategies such as safety netting or delayed prescription in managing the low risk of suppurative complications.”
“Predictors of suppurative complications for acute sore throat in primary care: prospective clinical cohort study” (open access)


  1. Harumph !
    Nothing on ATB-tic complications ?

    1. Good point. The authors do not prospectively track re-visits or adverse medication events. A major flaw in this report.


Comments on posts > 10 days old will be moderated; blame spammers.