December 3, 2010

Study Finds Doubts For Asthma, Painkiller Link

Swiss researchers have tied asthma risks to several common painkillers, adding more controversy about the role of such drugs around the world.

However, the team said their work hints that painkillers are not at the root of the problem, but rather a consequence of it.

Earlier studies found that kids who commonly take acetaminophen are more likely to develop wheezing and other symptoms of asthma.

But it is not understood whether acetaminophen triggers asthma directly or is simply used more often by kids whose lungs are prone to infections from the start.

"If we thought it could really cause asthma, the next step would be to change prescriptions," Dr. Claudia Kuehni of the University of Bern in Switzerland, who led the new study, told Reuters.

She said her findings actually appear to free the drugs from the link.

The team used data from over 1,000 young adults who had survived childhood cancer and were mostly well.  Over two years, seven percent reported asthma attacks or use of asthma medication, which is similar to rates in the general population.

About four percent of people who said they had not taken painkillers had asthma, while the rates were more than twice as high among those who used the drugs.

Both acetaminophen and drugs like ibuprofen and naproxen were tied to increased asthma risks.  However, Kuehni said that was not true for aspirin, most likely because it is not recommended for asthmatics.

According to the researchers, while the results do not say anything about cause and effect, they do hint that painkillers are the result of airway disease.

"Children who have asthma have more severe respiratory infections with fever and so tend to use more acetaminophen," Kuehni told Reuters Health.

"Based on these data there is no suggestion that we have to change prescriptions," she said, adding that the results should reassure parents about the safety of painkillers.

She said that children should still use the drugs as little as possible.  Aspirin is not recommended because it can cause short-term breathing problems and other rare side effects.

Dr. Richard W. Beasley, of the Medical Research Institute of New Zealand, told Reuters Health earlier this year that large trials that randomly assign children to different painkillers are needed.

"Only then will it be possible to determine the role of acetaminophen in the causation of asthma and to formulate evidence-based guidelines for the optimal use of acetaminophen," he said in an e-mail.


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