A new study has found that long-term use of antibiotics can lead to more growths in the intestines later in life, which could increase a person's risk for developing bowel cancer.

The study, now published online in Gut, found that individuals who took antibiotics for two months or more, between the ages of 20 and 39, were more likely to be diagnosed with bowel polyps later in life than age-matched counterparts who did not take antibiotics for extended periods of time, The BBC reported. This correlation increased with age, and individuals who had taken antibiotics for two months or more in their 40s and 50 were even more likely to develop intestinal polyps, known as adenomas, later in life. The team think this link is due to how antibiotics change the bacteria balance in the gut.

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"The findings, if confirmed by other studies, suggest the potential need to limit the use of antibiotics and sources of inflammation that may drive tumor formation," the study read.

For the study, the team looked at a demographic of nurses and how their antibiotic use related to polyp development later in life. It’s important to note that the study did not specifically look at whether these polyps led to bowel cancer. Bowel polyps are a very common occurrence, and only a small number of these will develop into something more serious. According to Patient.com, these polyps usually have no symptoms, but will be removed if discovered by doctors due to their risk of developing into bowel cancer if left untreated.

At the moment, the link between antibiotic use and bowel cancer risk is fairly new. What’s more, antibiotics are still extremely important, and in most cases, not taking them to treat an infection could mean serious injury or even death.

Antibiotic use is only one of many known factors that can contribute to bowel cancer risk. For example, doctors already know that many lifestyle choices, such as smoking, drinking, and eating diets high in red meat and low in fiber, can increase your individual risk for bowel cancer, The BBC reported.

For now, the team plan to further investigate exactly how antibiotics interact with the gut microbiome to better understand how and if they may increase risk for long-term health problems.

Source: Cao Y, Wu, Mehta R, et al. Long-term use of antibiotics and risk of colorectal adenoma. Gut . 2017

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