Beware of paracetamol

Asthma affects over 300 million people worldwide and its prevalence is increasing. Why people develop asthma is the question of a UK study of over 3000 children who were followed from birth to when they reached 11½ years.

The researchers concluded that young children who watch television for more than two hours a day double their risk of developing asthma. Doctor Andrea Sheriff, from the University of Glasgow says that breathing patterns associated with sedentary behaviour could lead to developmental changes in the lungs and wheezing illnesses in children. The study potentially links asthma to obesity and lack of exercise.

Asthma has long been understood to be ‘a disease of affluence.’ What this study doesn’t mention is what the children ate while they were watching TV. Other studies observe that incidence of asthma is higher in developed countries. The longer people from the developing world have lived in developed countries, the greater the likelihood there is of them developing asthma. Diet plays a huge role in the prevention and management of asthma. The more fruit and vegetables consumed, the better the outcome is for asthma sufferers. Other beneficial strategies are taking fish oil supplements and drinking plenty of water.

Another study, published in The Lancet suggests that using paracetamol in the first year of life is linked to an increased risk of asthma and other allergies.

This study* assessed over 200,000 children from 31 countries and found that giving paracetamol to treat fever in children in the first year of life, means that child has a 46% greater risk of having asthma symptoms at age 6 to 7. The study also found that 6 to 7 year-olds who had taken paracetamol once a month in the 12 months prior had a had a three fold increase risk of asthma.

An explanation of how this may be possible is that paracetamol reduces antioxidant defences, which can lead to inflammation in the airways, which is the basis of asthma. Paracetamol may switch the immune system to become more allergic.

Because so many people take paracetamol, it is important to know the effects of it. If the link is proven then 20 to 40% of asthma cases might be attributed to paracetamol intake.

This then presents the problem for parents, of how to deal with fevers. Some children tolerate fevers better than others, so it’s not always necessary to treat a child every time they get a fever. The purpose of a fever is to kill the bugs that are causing it, so there is an increasing argument amongst doctors for allowing the fever to run, especially in older children.

Here’s some information from Dr David Burgner, paediatric infectious diseases consultant from the Royal Children’s Hospital, Melbourne and the Royal Australasian College of Physicians:

Fever is not an illness in itself, but your body responding to a virus or bacteria. A temperature above 37.8-38°C is usually considered to be a fever. If not too high, the rise in temperature is beneficial as the raised body heat is designed to kill viruses and bacteria. It also helps to simulate the immune system, making it more effective at fighting these bugs. Therefore, bringing a fever down may be less helpful than you think.

Decreasing the risk of asthma has simple guidelines — keep active, have plenty of fresh fish, fruit and vegetables, and avoid processed, packet foods. Identify any food sensitivities such as dairy and drink plenty of water. Only use medication if it is absolutely necessary.

Avoiding paracetamol in the first year may prevent allergies from developing as your child gets older – especially if there is a family history of allergies.

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