Antibiotics and Childhood Asthma

How your baby's medicine could lead to complications down the road

Do you have a sick baby in the house? You might want to be careful about getting an antibiotic prescription for your little one. According to a study published in the June issue of Chest, Canadian researchers have found that children under 1 who frequently take antibiotics have a much higher risk of asthma, especially if they don't have a family dog.

Researchers from the University of Manitoba and McGill University looked at prescription data for over 13,000 children and compared antibiotic use prior to age 1 with asthma development by age 7. There was an obvious correlation. In fact, children who had more than 4 rounds of antibiotics had 1.5 times the risk of developing asthma by age 7 than children who never received antibiotics.

It is important to note that the respiratory tract infections for which most antibiotics are prescribed may also be an indicator of future asthma, so researchers were careful to include prescriptions for non-respiratory tract infections, such as ear infections, to isolate the effect of the drugs. Sure enough, children who received antibiotics for non-respiratory-related illnesses were more likely to have asthma at age 7 than those who received no antibiotics.

Researchers also classified data according to the type of antibiotic prescribed. Apparently, infants who received a broad-spectrum antibiotic were more at risk than infants who received a more specific drug. Researchers hypothesize that a broad-spectrum antibiotic kills more of the good intestinal bacteria that are a main component of a healthy immune system.

These findings suggest a link between antibiotic use and childhood asthma, but they do not mean that antibiotic use causes asthma. While it is certainly problematic, other factors may also come into play - for example, family history, air pollution and secondhand smoke.

One theory for the increasing prevalence of asthma is that our immune systems don't become oriented to work properly because of excessive hygiene in our homes. Some experts believe that some exposure to pathogens is required in order to create a healthy immune response.

According to researchers, you can't underestimate the value of a dog in this regard. The animal brings germs and other microorganisms into the home. This kind of exposure can be vital for immune system development.

A germ-free home provides no opportunity for such development. Add in a course (or more) of antibiotics, and you further deprive the immune system of exposure, thus potentially increasing the likelihood that your child will develop asthma.

June 12, 2007

The Toronto Star

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