Children prescribed antibiotics and indigestion medicine could be at greater risk of obesity, because of their impact on bacteria in the gut, according to a new study from the US.
The research, published in the journal Gut, suggests the drugs may alter key microbes associated with putting on weight – particularly when taken over a long period of time.
“The long-term risks to health must be weighed against the short-term benefits”
The composition of bacteria in the gut has been linked to various aspects of health, including obesity.
Meanwhile, certain drugs, such as antibiotics and drugs used to curb excess stomach acid, have been shown to alter the type and number of bacteria present in the gut.
Researchers set out to find out whether taking these drugs in early childhood might increase the risk of obesity.
They looked at the medicines prescribed to more than 330,000 infants whose medical records were put onto the US Military Health System database between 2006 and 2013 – in the first two years of their lives.
They found most – 72.5% – had been prescribed an antibiotic, while around 15% had been prescribed one of two types of antacid – with just under 12% taking a histamine 2 receptor antagonist (H2RA) and just over 3% prescribed a proton pump inhibitor (PPI).
More than 5,800 children had been prescribed all three types of drug.
In all, 46,993 of the children became obese with the minority – 11% – never having been prescribed antibiotics or acid suppressants.
After taking into account various factors that could have an impact, the researchers concluded taking the drugs was linked to an increased risk of obesity by the age of three.
They found a prescription for antibiotics was linked to a 26% increased risk of obesity regardless of the type of antibiotic. The risk increased with each extra type of antibiotic children received.
Acid suppressants were also associated with an increased risk of obesity – but to a lesser extent – and this link got stronger as the length of prescription increased.
The researchers stressed they could not determine cause and effect and that antibiotics and other medicine that alter gut bacteria have “an important therapeutic role”.
However, they added: “The long-term risks to health must be weighed against the short-term benefits.”
They said their findings could be significant when it came to preventing the “significant problem” of over-prescription of antibiotics and antacids although more research was needed to determine the specific effects of different types of medication on gut bacteria.
“Clear documentation of the specific effects of these medications at the level of the microbiota would provide further justification for prevention of extraneous prescriptions and may further convince providers to adhere to strict clinical guidelines for prescriptions of these medications,” said the study paper.