Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Childhood Paracetamol Use Linked to Asthma

By Stephen Luntz

A longitudinal study has confirmed the connection between early paracetamol use and asthma, as well as finding a link to allergies.

“Observational studies have suggested a link between paracetamol and asthma,” says Prof Julian Crane of the University of Otago. These have included studies with enormous sample sizes. However, these relied on parents’ memories of when they first gave their children paracetamol, and how often.

Crane looked at 505 infants and 914 children aged 5–6 years over a period of time. “The major finding is that children who used paracetamol before the age of 15 months (90%) were more than three times as likely to become sensitised to allergens and twice as likely to develop symptoms of asthma at 6 years old than children not using paracetamol,” Crane says.

While the link to asthma has been reported in previous studies, Crane says that allergies have not been reported previously, either because studies did not look for them or did not find an association with early paracetamol use.

Although the number of children who were not given paracetamol was too small to serve as a realistic control, Crane says the effect was dose-related, with those who took paracetamol most rarely showing a reduced risk.

“Paracetamol should be used in some circumstances,” Crane says, “particularly to reduce high fever. However, at the moment we give it out freely for aches and pains.” He suggests that this should stop, at least for young children.

Although the chance of getting asthma is much higher than that of liver damage from childhood use of aspirin, Crane says the fact that aspirin can, in rare circumstances, be fatal for children means that paracetamol remains the better option. “There aren’t a lot of alternatives,” he says.