Obesity Linked to Overuse of Antibiotics in Childhood

A study published in the JAMA Pediatrics has suggested that early, frequent use of antibiotics in children may be linked to a higher incidence of obesity. In particular, the use of antibiotics for a broad spectrum of ailments and diseases has been shown to correlate to an increase in the risk that a child will become obese later in life. The earlier the child is exposed to excessive antibotics the more pronounced the effects seem to become.

Children are frequently prescribed antibiotics as a quick-fix for a wide range of illnesses. Ear infections, fever, and strep throat are just some of the common ailments that most children experience when they are very young. The researchers believe that infancy is a critical period in which external environmental influences,such a use of medication, can have a lasting effect on a person’s risk of becoming overweight or obese in later life. The study set out to identify some of the risk factors for obesity that can be modified. The correlation between exposure to antibiotics in early childhood and a tendency toward obesity was studied extensively to determine whether such a link existed.

Obesity in children and adults alike give rise to a number of health concerns, making a reduction in obesity rates a high priority for insurance companies, epidemiologists and doctors. The authors of the study believe that reducing of the incidence of obese and overweight individuals is a public health imperative, and by establishing this link between early antibiotic use and weight accumulation, they may have uncovered another route to lessen the risk of individuals suffering from excess bodyweight in later life.

The researchers used digitally stored health records to observe the number of antibiotics prescribed and the overall health of 64,580 infants and young children in Philadelphia between the years of 2011 and 2013. The researchers looked at primary care practices, including teaching centers and private practices, affiliated with the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

For these children, the number of times that they were given antibiotics before they reached the age of 23 months was recorded. The researchers observed that 69 percent of the children had been given antibiotics before they were two years old. From this, they concluded that the risk of obesity was increased by 11 percent when broad-spectrum antibiotics were given. This risk also increased by 11 percent if the youngsters were given more than four courses of treatment. These children were more likely to be considered obese at some point before their fifth birthday.

Broad-spectrum antibiotics are designed to treat major systemic infections. These are usually administered when the specific type of bacteria causing an illness has not been identified. These types are also given when the strain of bacteria has been identified as one which is resistant to standard antibiotics. Broad-spectrum antibiotics are highly effective and indiscriminate, which is probably why they are so popular as a treatment, but they are known to destroy good bacteria in the body as well as bad. Commonly prescribed broad-spectrum antibiotics are tetracycline, ciprofloxacin, amoxicillin and moxifloxacin.

Children who had been given antibiotics designed to treat a narrower spectrum of bacteria were less likely to be considered obese before their fifth birthday, as were those who were not given any antibiotics at all. This study amplifies the results from previous research that has pointed pointed to the role of gut bacteria in obesity. The previous studies indicate that broad-spectrum antibiotics adversely affect these beneficial bacteria, and impair their functionality with respect to a person’s digestive system.

Earlier studies using laboratory mice have directly shown that young mice gain weight when they are given antibiotics because the bacteria in their guts is altered by the medication. Farmers have used antibiotics since the 1950’s as a method of fast weight gain for livestock such as cattle and swine. Even small amounts will increase the meat yield from an animal by as much as 15 percent. Exactly how antibiotics have this effect on livestock is not yet well understood, but the fact that antibiotics cause a desirable weight gain in meat animals suggests they could also be responsible for a rapid and undesirable weight gain in human children.

In addition to weight gain, antibiotic resistance is another huge problem that could render ineffective many of the methods that doctors currently use to treat infections. The link between antibiotics and weight gain, which has been observed and exploited by the agricultural industry for some time now, provides further evidence that a global effort in reducing antibiotic use is needed. Nevertheless efforts by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to get farmers to use less antibiotics on animals used for food has met with little success despite anecdotal evidence indicating that the increases in human antibiotic resistance may be caused at least in part by the ingestion of antibiotic laced meat.


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