An antibiotic course of 5 days is usually just as effective as longer courses but with fewer side effects and decreased overall antibiotic exposure for a number of common bacterial conditions, according to new clinical guidelines published by the American College of Physicians.
The guidelines focus on treatment of uncomplicated cases involving pneumonia, urinary tract infections (UTIs), cellulitis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) exacerbations, and acute bronchitis. The goal of the guidelines is to continue improving antibiotic stewardship given the increasing threat of antibiotic resistance and the adverse effects of antibiotics.
“Any use of antibiotics (including necessary use) has downstream effects outside of treating infection,” Dawn Nolt, MD, MPH, a professor of pediatric infection disease at Oregon Health & Science University, Portland, said in an interview. Dr. Nolt was not involved in developing these guidelines. “Undesirable outcomes include allergic reactions, diarrhea, and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. When we reduce unnecessary antibiotic, we reduce undesirable outcomes,” she said.
According to background information in the paper, 1 in 10 patients receives an antibiotic prescription during visits, yet nearly a third of these (30%) are unnecessary and last too long, especially for sinusitis and bronchitis. Meanwhile, overuse of antibiotics, particularly broad-spectrum ones, leads to resistance and adverse effects in up to 20% of patients.
“Prescribing practices can vary based on the type of provider, the setting where the antibiotic is being prescribed, what geographic area you are looking at, the medical reason for which the antibiotic is being prescribed, the actual germ being targeted, and the type of patient,” Dr. Nolt said. “But this variability can be reduced when prescribing providers are aware and follow best practice standards as through this article.”
The new ACP guidelines are a distillation of recommendations from preexisting infectious disease organizations, Dr. Nolt said, but aimed specifically at those practicing internal medicine.
“We define appropriate antibiotic use as prescribing the right antibiotic at the right dose for the right duration for a specific condition,” Rachael A. Lee, MD, MSPH, of the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and colleagues wrote in the article detailing the new guidelines. “Despite evidence and guidelines supporting shorter durations of antibiotic use, many physicians do not prescribe short-course therapy, frequently defaulting to 10-day courses regardless of the condition.”
The reasons for this default response vary. Though some clinicians prescribe longer courses specifically to prevent antibiotic resistance, no evidence shows that continuing to take antibiotics after symptoms have resolved actually reduces likelihood of resistance, the authors noted.
“In fact, resistance is a documented side effect of prolonged antibiotic use due to natural selection pressure,” they wrote.
Another common reason is habit.
“This was the ‘conventional wisdom’ for so long, just trying to make sure all bacteria causing the infection were completely eradicated, with no stragglers that had been exposed to the antibiotic but were not gone and now could evolve into resistant organisms,” Jacqueline W. Fincher, MD, a primary care physician and president of the ACP, said in an interview. “While antibiotic stewardship has been very important for over a decade, we now have more recent head-to-head studies/data showing that, in these four conditions, shorter courses of treatment are just as efficacious with less side effects and adverse events.”
The researchers reviewed all existing clinical guidelines related to bronchitis with COPD exacerbations, community-acquired pneumonia, UTIs, and cellulitis, as well as any other relevant studies in the literature. Although they did not conduct a formal systematic review, they compiled the guidelines specifically for all internists, family physicians and other clinicians caring for patients with these conditions.
“Although most patients with these infections will be seen in the outpatient setting, these best-practice advice statements also apply to patients who present in the inpatient setting,” the authors wrote. They also note the importance of ensuring the patient has the correct diagnosis and appropriate corresponding antibiotic prescription. “If a patient is not improving with appropriate antibiotics, it is important for the clinician to reassess for other causes of symptoms rather than defaulting to a longer duration of antibiotic therapy,” they wrote, calling a longer course “the exception and not the rule.”