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Repeated Antibiotic Use in Children Can Lead to Mental Illness

— December 18, 2018

Repeated Antibiotic Use in Children Can Lead to Mental Illness

The overuse of antibiotics can lead to bacterial superbugs resistant to future dosages, so continued use of these drugs is not recommended.  Now, a study published this month in JAMA Psychiatry suggests there is a higher risk of young people who overuse to developing serious issues with mental illness like obsessive-compulsive disorder and schizophrenia.

Study author Robert Yolken, a neurovirologist at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, and his team has speculated that changes in the gut microbiome, which is the sea of bacteria that lives in the digestive system, can harm the brain.  That’s because the gut microbiome helps coordinate the gut-brain axis that regulates the body.  One of the most prevalent ways to change the microbiome is by taking antibiotics, many of which kill both harmless and harmful bacteria.

Yolken and his Denmark based colleagues looked at the medical history of all Danish residents born between 1995 and 2012, which included a million children.  They specifically studied children who had taken antimicrobial drugs for an infection at some age before the age of 18 and tracked their mental health history for an average of a decade.  They compared these results to a control group of Danish children who had been prescribed germ-fighting drugs, but never actually received them.

Repeated Antibiotic Use in Children Can Lead to Mental Illness
Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

“What we basically found out was that exposure to antibiotics, particularly long-term antibiotics or multiple doses of antibiotics, was associated with an increased risk of any number of different psychiatric disorders,” Yolken said.

Only 3.9 percent of the children in total, about 42,000, were later hospitalized and diagnosed with any mental health disorder, while 5.2 percent, 56,000 children, later received a prescription for an antipsychotic drug.  Children administered antimicrobials had a noticeably higher chance of either circumstance happening.

Children who were hospitalized and treated for an infection were 84 percent more likely to be hospitalized for mental illness and 42 percent more likely to be given antipsychotics.  Those who were only prescribed antimicrobials for an infection were still 40 percent and 22 percent more likely to be hospitalized for mental illness or receive antipsychotics, respectively.

“This isn’t meant to panic anyone.  If we’re talking about parents whose kids get antibiotics for an ear infection—one dose is not going to do very much,” Yolken said. “But on a population level, or on a medical care level, then I think it is important to try to limit the antibiotics we get during our childhood, especially in the first or second year of life.”

The research team also looked at the mental health history of the treated siblings, and compared to the siblings, the treated children did have a higher risk of mental illness, but to a lesser degree than when compared to the general public.  The study, Yolken says, is the largest and most extensive of its kind to date.

There is already an effort being made by some physicians and other medical providers to reduce patients’ use of these medications that can lead to future resistance.  “This just adds an additional reason to cut back on antibiotics,” Yolken said.


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Study Links Infections to Risk of Mental Illness in Young People

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