Most people have had antibiotics at some point in their life – whether it be to help combat a virus or an infection.

But some people have conditions that require them to take long courses of antibiotics. And new research has found that long term antibiotic use may increase the risk of having certain types of cancer.

According to research published in the medical journal, Gut, even if the long-term use was in early to mid-life, it has been found to increase the risk of polyps or colorectal adenomas, which are abnormal growths in the colon and rectum.

These growths lead to the development of most cases of bowel cancer.

This suggests, according to researchers, that the type and diversity of bacteria in the gut, also known as the ‘microbiome’, may play a large role in the development and prevention of cancers.  

Past research have indicated that there may be an increase in developing bowel cancer from antibiotic use, however these researches only looked at short monitoring periods.

This is the first research to suggest an association between long term antibiotic use and polyp risk.

For this latest study, researchers took data from Nurses Health Study, which began in 1976.

That study monitored the health of 121,700 US nurses who were all aged between 30 and 55 which had been

For this research into antibiotics, analysis of the data was restricted to 16,642 women, who were aged 60 and older in 2004.

These nurses were able to provide a history of antibiotic use between the ages of 20 and 59 and who had had at least one bowel investigation (colonoscopy) between 2004 and 2010.

Of this group, 1195 adenomas were newly diagnosed, and it was concluded that “recent use” of antibiotics within the past four years wasn’t associated with a heightened risk of an adenoma diagnosis.

However, long term use in the past seemed to be a connecting factor – compared with those who hadn’t taken antibiotics for any extended period in their 20s and 30s, those who had taken them for two months or more were 36% more likely to be diagnosed with an adenoma.

Similarly, women who had taken antibiotics for two months or more during their 40s and 50s were 69% more likely to be diagnosed with an adenoma than those who hadn’t taken these drugs for any extended period.

In both age groups, the association held true irrespective of whether the adenoma was considered high or low risk for bowel cancer.

When compared to women who had not taken antibiotics for any amount of time from their 20s through to their 50s, those who had taken them for more than 15 days between the ages of 20 and 39 or between 40 and 59 – those who had taken antibiotics for two months or more were 73% more likely to be diagnosed with an adenoma.

Though antibiotics do help people by killing the “bad” bacteria that leads to infections and other conditions, they also kill some “good” bacteria that are needed in the gut. Essentially, by reducing the diversity and number of bacteria, antibiotics alter the gut microbiome and thus reduce resistance to ‘hostile’ bugs.

“The findings, if confirmed by other studies, suggest the potential need to limit the use of antibiotics and sources of inflammation that may drive tumour formation,” conclude the researchers.

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