Chances are good that you’ve taken antibiotics before at some point in your life. In fact, approximately 80 percent of Americans are prescribed antibiotics annually.1 Unfortunately, the problems associated with antibiotic use extend even beyond that of increasingly resistant bacteria. New research now suggests that longer-term antibiotic use may promote abnormal growths in the colon that can lead to cancer.
The study, which took place at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia, found that taking antibiotics for a slightly longer period may be linked to the development of adenomas, which are polyps in the colon that can eventually become cancerous.2 These results were based on a sampling of 16,642 women in their 60s who participated in the Nurses Health Study. Those who had used an antibiotic for two months or longer between the ages of 20 and 59 were considerably more likely to have an adenoma detected during a colonoscopy than their peers who had not taken these drugs for an extended period.
A connection wasn’t found between use of antibiotics in the four years prior to the colonoscopy exams that the women each had at some point between 2004 and 2010. However, taking an antibiotic for two months—which may be prescribed to treat a chronic infection—while in her 20s or 30s was related to a 36 percent increase in risk for adenoma growth. And the risk jumps higher for those who used the drugs for a prolonged time in their 40s or 50s.
Don’t think there’s no danger if you’ve only taken shorter-term prescriptions. The subjects who took an antibiotic between their 20s and 50s for longer than 15 days were also at an elevated risk for colon adenomas. And the researchers believe there is no reason why the same results would not hold true in men.
The study was not designed to prove cause and effect, but to determine whether an association exists between longer antibiotic use and the prevalence of adenomas. Therefore, we can’t say from these findings that the drugs cause the adenomas, but we can certainly say that those who used them are at higher risk. Part of the issue may arise from the bacteria that the antibiotics are being prescribed to treat, since certain kinds can promote inflammation, which can be a contributing factor for colon cancer.
But the other issue is certainly the antibiotics themselves. It is well established that antibiotics affect not only the harmful bacteria that are causing an illness, but also all of the beneficial bacteria that reside in our gut. Antibiotic use alters both the number and strains of bacteria that are present from the normal diversity that occurs and can leave us susceptible to many health problems. Therefore it makes perfect sense that more frequent or longer-term use of these drugs could potentially change the overall setting of the microbiome in a way that leads to lowered immune function and the development of abnormal growths.
Many cases of colon cancer begin as polyps; so even if they are precancerous, removal is generally recommended when they are found during a colonoscopy. Colorectal cancer is the third most common form of cancer in the United States and the third leading cause of cancer-related mortality.
Now obviously, there is nothing you can do at this point if you were prescribed a longer course of antibiotics a couple of decades ago. But moving forward—no matter what your present age—your best bet is to be cautious about taking antibiotics.
Some doctors are happy to prescribe an antibiotic for you if you have a sick visit to complain of cold symptoms. But most colds are viral and will not be eradicated by drugs; all you are doing is disrupting the bacterial balance in your gut. Instead, stay hydrated, take vitamin C, and clear your sinuses with a nasal irrigation. If you have a confirmed bacterial infection, make sure you take a probiotic that can help the beneficial bacteria survive. If you bolster your system with a healthy lifestyle in general, you may find not only are you getting sick less frequently, but the duration of your illnesses is much shorter too. And that will mean reducing your chances of getting prescribed an antibiotic for any reason.
And as Jon Barron says, make sure, after you have used any antibiotics, that you aggressively rebuild your intestinal flora STAT with a complete probiotic formula from a source that you trust.
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