The dangers of overusing antibiotics are well chronicled — antibiotic-resistant bacteria is a big concern for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — and now there’s another reason to think twice about antibiotics: They may lead to increased weight gain for kids.
According to new research from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health published in the International Journal of Obesity, kids who receive antibiotics throughout childhood gain weight much faster than kids who do not. Studying the health records of more than 160,000 children between 3 and 18 years old from 2001 to 2012, researchers found that kids who had taken antibiotics seven or more times during childhood (around 21 percent of those studied) weighed about 3 pounds more than those who had received no antibiotics.
“Your BMI [body mass index] may be forever altered by the antibiotics you take as a child,“ says study leader Brian S. Schwartz, MD, a professor in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences at the Bloomberg School. "Our data suggests that every time we give an antibiotic to kids they gain weight faster over time.”
For Dr. T.J. Gold, a Brooklyn-based pediatrician with Tribeca Pediatrics, the study is one more reminder for doctors and parents that antibiotics should be prescribed only when really necessary. “This shows how antibiotics can potentially affect people into adulthood,” she says.
Evidence supports the idea that the weight gain may be due to the fact that when antibiotics kill off harmful bacteria, they also affect bacteria that are key for gastrointestinal health. “Research has shown that repeated antibiotics use can forever change the microbiota, altering the way it breaks down food and increasing the calories of nutrients absorbed,” notes the report. “This, in turn, can increase weight gain.”
Although most of the parents Gold sees understand that their child won’t be given an antibiotic unless it’s essential (“It’s not the 1950s — no one gives antibiotics for a runny nose,” Gold says), she sometimes has to tell parents whose kids have been sick for a week that she still doesn’t feel comfortable prescribing one. “My own child was given antibiotics one time, when she had strep,” Gold says. “There is no casual prescription.”
Gold thinks doctors and patients are moving in the right direction — not prescribing or expecting antibiotics nearly as much as they have in the past. “It’s much easier these days to say, ‘Give it three more days and let’s follow up,’” she notes, because today patients can contact doctors via phone and email. “Better access means better care and fewer antibiotics.”
(Top photo: Corbis Images)