Aim: The rising prevalence of bronchial asthma has led to world-wide efforts to understand and stem this development. Cross-sectional studies appear to show that early childhood use of antibiotics may be an important contributory factor, with paracetamol as an additional suspected cause. However, mounting evidence, which is reviewed here, points to various confounding factors as the major reasons for these reported associations.
Methods: PubMed and EMBASE were systematically searched for studies on associations between antibiotics and/or paracetamol with asthma and/or wheezing, published up to November 2012. A total of 64 pertinent studies were identified, 35 focusing on antibiotics, 19 on paracetamol, and ten addressing both antibiotics and paracetamol, bringing the number of relevant datasets to 74.
Results: Numerous studies were cross-sectional and made no adjustment for the indication of antibiotics or paracetamol; consequently, they were unable to dismiss possible confounding by indication. Where such adjustments could be performed (mostly in longitudinal studies), they substantially weakened or entirely eliminated the association with asthma or asthma surrogates present in the unadjusted data.
Conclusion: The weight of evidence of the collected studies in our review strongly suggests that the association of antibiotics with childhood asthma reflects various forms of bias, the most prominent of which is confounding by indication. Recent studies and meta-analyses support the same conclusion for paracetamol. Truly indicated antibiotics should not be withheld from infants or young children for fears they might develop asthma. Likewise, there is no sound reason to replace paracetamol as the preferred pain relief and fever medication in this age group.