Antibiotics in Infancy Increase Asthma Risk

  • The discovery of antibiotics was a wonderful medical advancement during the 20th century. Infections that had routinely maimed, or even killed both children and adults could be nipped in the bud and eradicated within weeks or even days.

    As the decades wore on after the early days of sulfa drugs and penicillin, more and better antibiotics were developed. But this medical miracle hasn't been all good. For quite some time now, scientists have known that bigger and better germs keep arising, ones that are often extremely resistant to antibiotics. In return, bigger and better antibiotics have been created.

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    Unfortunately, we haven't yet found the answer to treating all the forms of infection out there. Some seem to defeat every antibiotic thrown at them. And antibiotics often have troubling side effects too. I don't mean to suggest that antibiotics aren't great. They are, but it's a fact that they've often been over-subscribed, used in cases where they probably weren't necessary.

    Now, another "downside" to antibiotics has been noted. In research recently reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association, it was found that kids who are treated with antibiotics during their first year of life are significantly more likely to develop asthma by age 7.

    The study, done by Canadian researchers, used a prescription database to look at antibiotic use in 13,116 children from birth to age 7 years. They found that kids who'd gotten prescription antibiotics for respiratory infections during their first 12 months were twice as likely to have asthma by age 7 as kids who had not been treated for any respiratory infections during their first year.

    Interestingly, kids who got four or more doses of antibiotics in that first year were at even higher risk of getting asthma. This was especially true if they did NOT live in a house with a dog. The risk was also higher if they'd been treated with what is known as a "broad-spectrum" antibiotic, such as amoxicillin or erythromycin.

    The researchers suggested that we might reduce the number of young children who get asthma by using broad-spectrum antibiotics less during infancy for respiratory infections. Narrow-spectrum drugs might be a better choice if the doctor knows what germ is really at work. Of course, that's the hard part, without extensive testing.

    Many times, doctors diagnose an infection and prescribe a drug known to treat a wide variety of infections. It's not necessarily precise, but is usually effective. Unfortunately, it may also be increasing that child's risk for developing asthma down the line, especially if other risk factors are already at work, such as a family history of allergies and/or asthma or presence of a smoker in the home.

    More study of this issue is probably needed, but it's definitely food for thought...

Published On: July 17, 2007