A study of more than 200,000 children around the world has left many parents of babies skittish about using fever-reducing drugs, such as Tempra and Tylenol. The study, released in late September, concludes that infants given acetaminophen may be at risk for developing asthma  later in childhood.
However, a leading Canadian pediatric allergist says acetaminophen – which is the active ingredient in these popular fever-reducing drugs – is safe for children if used properly. “There’s no proof that acetaminophen causes asthma,” says Dr. Allan Becker, a researcher with the Manitoba Institute of Child Health. Even the study authors say acetaminophen remains the medicine of choice for babies with high fevers. But they stress the importance of following the guideline that its use be limited to those cases, and not used casually.
The study reported that children who had been given acetaminophen once a year or more in their first year of life showed a 46 per cent higher risk of asthma symptoms by 6 or 7 years of age compared to those who hadn’t had the drug. The findings also indicate that the asthma risk increased threefold in 6-year-olds and 7-year-olds taking the tablets one or more times a month.
Researchers gathered the data from children in 73 countries, including Canada, as part of third phase of the International Study of Asthma and Allergies in Children (ISAAC) program. The findings were published in The Lancet, the well-known British medical journal.
This study shows an association between the use of acetaminophen and the definition of asthma in the survey, explains Dr. Becker. In a questionnaire, parents were asked whether their child had experienced wheeze – a whistling noise in the chest – in the past 12 months. “In the two participating Canadian centres, Hamilton and Saskatoon, 20 per cent and 17 per cent respectively answered yes to that question,” says Dr. Becker.
However, a sub-group of these parents was shown a video of a child with asthma wheezing, instead of getting the questionnaire. Only 12 and 10 per cent of this group answered that they had seen ‘wheezing’. “This tells us that many parents who said their child was wheezing really don’t understand what we mean when we say ‘wheezing’,” said Dr. Becker.
Stay tuned. Researchers have called for a large randomized trial to settle the acetaminophen debate once and for all.
First published in Breathing Space, a supplement of Allergic Living magazine.