When our little ones are feeling ill, our main priority is to get them better and back to their normal, cartwheeling, bouncing, running around selves. Many parents (and children’s doctors) turn first to antibiotics as a treatment catch-all when kids are under the weather. A recent study, published in the journal Cell Host and Microbe, cautions that antibiotic use may indeed be linked to bacterial gut imbalance in infants that persists as they grow, as well as a number of other allergies, diseases (including infectious and auto-immune), and metabolic issues later in life.

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The concern with antibiotics is that along with destroying the “bad” bacteria that makes us ill, they also wipe out the “good, healthy” bacteria within the stomach, where many immune functions occur. The researchers specifically pointed out, for example, that antibiotics destroyed gut bacteria that help immune cells mature, therefore making the body unable to fend off allergens. An imbalance of bacteria within the gut also can result in metabolic changes (potentially leading to obesity) and also have been correlated with the increasingly high rates of allergies, asthma, and certain auto-immune diseases. Antibiotics count for one fourth of all medications prescribed for children, with up to a third of these prescriptions being medically unnecessary. So as much as parents and doctors are in a hurry to treat kids quickly (and antibiotic use is clearly medically indicated at certain times), rushing to give young children antibiotics frequently can have long-term and long-suffering effects. The researchers point to the need for future studies to further determine the strength of these links, how the antibiotics disrupt normal bacterial development in infant guts to effect health at later ages, and how to intervene and treat infants once they have been found to have a gut imbalance.

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