The Grapevine

Infants' Asthma Treatment May Cause Stunted Growth, But Breathing Is More Important Than Being Tall

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More evidence points to a link between asthma medication and stunted growth. NIAID CC BY 2.0

A study presented over the weekend at the 54th annual meeting of the European Society for Pediatric Endocrinology in Spain suggests that asthma treatment in the first two years of a child’s life may lead to stunted growth. However, because childhood asthma is far more dangerous than a small stature, the researchers suggested asthma treatment should be used more appropriately rather than stopped completely.

For the study, researchers from the University of Eastern Finland and Kuopio University Hospital analyzed the height, weight, and asthma medicine regimens of 12,482 Finnish children (6,391 boys, 6091 girls) up to 2 years old. The results revealed that children who had inhaled corticosteroid-based asthma medications were shorter than expected for their age, with the largest effect seen in kids who had used budesonide, Medical News Today reported.

This is not the first time scientists have investigated the link between asthma medications and child development. In 2014, two separate studies found similarly stunted growth in older children who were treated for asthma in early childhood. However, Dr. Antti Saari, lead researcher of the current study, said in a recent statement that “studies on inhaled corticosteroid use in infants are practically lacking.”

Asthma is a chronic and serious lung disease in which inflammation in the airways causes recurring periods of wheezing and shortness of breath. More than 25 million people in the U.S. have asthma, of whom seven million are children, according to the National Institutes of Health. Rather than suggesting that doctors stop using corticosteroids to treat infants’ asthma altogether, these results highlight the importance of prescribing asthma treatments more carefully and appropriately. Current guidelines recommend that infants use inhaled corticosteroids only for recurrent wheezing, but Saari said inhaled corticosteroids are often used  “loosely” to treat other symptoms.

Because the team was only able to assess the impacts of corticosteroids on growth for up to three years, the  long-term effects of these treatments are still unclear. It’s possible stunted growth during infancy can lead to having a shorter height throughout the child’s entire life. However, that’s not necessarily a bad thing considering being shorter than average may have its own unique health benefits. Shorter individuals carry a reduced risk of cancer, a lower chance of developing blood clots, and a greater chance of living a longer life.

Dr. Linjie Zhang, lead researcher of a 2014 study on asthma medication and growth, suggested that reducing dosage may help keep stunting growth to a minimum. Still, he emphasized that the effect “seems minor compared to the known benefits of the drugs for controlling asthma and ensuring full lung growth.”

Source: Antti Saari et al. Stunted growth after inhaled corticosteroid use during the first 24 months of life. Presented at the 54th Annual European Society for Pediatric Endocrinology Meeting, 1-3 October 2015.

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