People with sinusitis (congestion combined with nasal discharge and facial pain) are often prescribed antibiotics. But most people don’t need them. That’s because the problem almost always stems from a viral infection, not a bacterial one—and antibiotics don’t work against viruses.

The risks

About 1 in 4 people who take antibiotics report side effects, such as a rash, dizziness and stomach problems. In rare cases, they can cause severe allergic reactions. Overuse of antibiotics also encourages the growth of bacteria that can’t be controlled easily with drugs. That makes you more vulnerable to antibiotic-resistant infections and undermines the usefulness of antibiotics for everyone.

When to consider antibiotics

Antibiotics should usually only be considered when symptoms last longer than a week, start to improve but then worsen again, or are very severe. Worrisome symptoms that can warrant immediate antibiotic treatment include a fever over 38.6°C, extreme pain and tenderness over your sinuses, or signs of a skin infection, such as a hot, red rash that spreads quickly.

Ask these questions

Do I really need to have this test, treatment or procedure? The answer should be direct and simple. Tests should help you and your health professional decide how to treat your problem, and treatments and procedures should help you live a longer, healthier life.

What are the risks (of having or not having it)? Discuss the risks as well as the chance of inaccurate results or findings that will never cause symptoms, but may require further testing. Weigh the potential complications against possible benefits and the symptoms of the condition itself.

Are there simpler safer options? Sometimes lifestyle changes will provide all the relief you need.

What happens if I do nothing? Ask your health professional if your condition might worsen or get better if you don’t have the test or treatment now.

There may be tests, treatments and procedures you think you need, but you don’t. Let’s think again. Engage in a healthy conversation with your health professional today.

Further information

Antibiotics: Health Navigator
Antibiotic resistance: Health Navigator, Ministry of Health

It’s OK to ask questions
If you have questions about your symptoms or the medicines managing your symptoms, speak with your health professional.

You can also download this information as a pdf (386 KB).

© 2014 Consumers Union of United States, Inc, (101 Truman Ave, Yonkers, NY 10703-1057). Adapted from Consumer Reports (2014) and Choosing Wisely Canada (2014), Common tests, treatments and procedures you may think you need. Let’s think again. Choosing Wisely does not assume any responsibility or liability arising from any error or omission or from the use of any information in these resources.