Studies show impact of antibiotics and over-the-counter medicine on babies

As parents, we put a lot of faith in medical professionals when it comes to knowing what and when medications need to be given to our children. Now, two separate studies, one looking at the impact of antibiotics and another on cough and cold medicines, have some of us rattled.

But, instead of being fearful, Melbourne paediatrician and mum-of-three Dr Anthea Rhodes says the take-home message for parents is to not delay seeing a doctor they trust when worried their little one is unwell. 

Antibiotics link to allergies

baby newborn eczema sensitive skin sl fb

Research presented in the UK has found children given antibiotics before they reach their second birthday have an increased chance of developing allergies as adults.

The research by Dr Fariba Ahmadizar of Utrecht University, Netherlands and colleagues involved analysis of almost 400,000 people.

The findings are yet to be published, however, they were presented at this year’s European Respiratory Society International Congress on Tuesday, the European Lung Foundation reports.

“Early life exposure to antibiotics is related to an increased risk of both eczema and hay fever later in life,” Dr Ahmadizar says.

While early studies drawing the same link were considered inconsistent, this latest research involved looking as far back as 1966 to today, at studies which focused on the association between antibiotic consumption during the first two years of life and the risk of eczema or hay fever later in life.

The researchers noted variations depending on the type of study but overall they found the increased risk due to early life use of antibiotics varied from 15 per cent to 41 per cent for eczema, and 14 per cent to 56 per cent for hay fever.

So are antibiotics now a no-no?

But before parents consider a blanket ban on antibiotics for their infants, Dr Rhodes says that there are times when antibiotics should be used – as they can provide very effective, and even lifesaving, treatment for babies with bacterial infections.

“Very young children are more at risk of getting bacterial infections that do need antibiotics,” Dr Rhodes says.

“If you have a young baby that has a fever then that baby must be seen by a doctor because the chance they have an infection that needs antibiotics are much higher than, for example, a two-year-old who is more likely to have a viral infection.”

Dr Rhodes says the link between antibiotics in infants and the development of allergies is complex and there are still so many unknowns.

“What we do know is organisms in the gut play a role in how your body develops allergic disease,” she says.

“If those organisms in the gut change – and that can happen with antibiotics – then that might affect whether or not an individual, if susceptible, goes on to get allergic disease.”

She says the biggest problem with antibiotics remains the worldwide “overuse and misuse”, which is leading to many people building up a resistance.

Benefits of over-the-counter medication unfounded

The latest Australian Child Health Poll released today shows Australian parents are spending millions of dollars a year on cough and cold medicines that could harm young children.

A total of 2,150 adults aged 18 years and older, with a combined 3,992 children, were surveyed across Australia for the poll on behalf of The Royal Children’s Hospital, Melbourne.

newborn stock

It found Australians are spending an estimated $67 million every year on cough and cold medicines for children aged under 15.

Dr Rhodes, who is director of the independent team behind the poll, says the most alarming finding was a third of children aged under six years are being given these potentially harmful over-the-counter cough and cold medicines, despite danger warnings from the Therapeutic Goods Administration.

“We all struggle to cope with our kids’ coughs and colds over winter, but for young children these medicines are known to be ineffective, and in some cases potentially harmful,” Dr Rhodes says.

“What’s particularly disturbing is that among parents who are giving these products to their young children, 74 per cent do so on the advice of a pharmacist, and 64 per cent on the advice of a doctor.”

She urged parents of young children told to use an over-the-counter cough or cold medicine to challenge the advice.

“If your child is under six years of age, don’t buy it,” she says.

Dr Rhodes says the poll revealed many parents see over-the-counter-medications as appealing quick fixes.

Vitamin supplements for kids

“We were surprised to learn that, nationally, we’re spending an estimated $74 million a year on vitamins and supplements for children aged less than 15-years,” Dr Rhodes says.

“About half of all Australian children and teenagers are receiving these supplements, even though there are no proven health benefits where diet is normal and there is no established nutritional deficiency.

“For example, among this group, three out of four parents are giving their children vitamins to boost their immune system even though there is no clear evidence that these products can have that effect.”

Dr Rhodes says parents are constantly bombarded by commercially motivated messages presenting as health advice.

She says it is an obligation of healthcare professionals to educate Australian parents that there’s no quick fix or magic pill.

“The most common type of cough is the one that follows a cold. Most children don’t need any specific treatment beyond rest and time,” Dr Rhodes says.

“The age-old recipe of plenty of exercise and outdoor play, adequate sleep and a healthy diet is still the best medicine for keeping our children well.”

Dr Rhodes says if parents do fear their child is deficient in certain vitamins, the best course of action is a blood test to find out for sure.

“Even the most fussiest eaters you’ll find are not lacking the vitamins they need,” she says.

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