A new study widely reported in the British media suggests that taking antibiotics for in excess of two weeks can massively increase the risk of bowel cancer developing.
However, reports on the matter have been rather misleading, as the study in question did not in fact assess the level of bowel cancer.
What it did discover is an increased risk of bowel polyps for women who took antibiotics for two months or more.
The study was carried out by researchers from Harvard Medical School, Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, the University of Nebraska and Yale School of Medicine.
It was funded by grants from the US National Institutes of Health and various charitable bodies, and included 16,642 women aged over 60, who’d had a colonoscopy, a test used to screen for bowel cancer in the US.
This process is not routinely used for screening in the UK.
The study was published in the peer-reviewed medical journal Gut.
Results indicated that the participants who had utilised antibiotics for a period of at least two months between the ages of 20 and 60 were more likely to be diagnosed with a colorectal adenoma during colonoscopy.
But the study doesn’t prove that antibiotics directly cause bowel cancer, and the authorities have moved quickly to assure people that they shouldn’t stop taking the medication because of this research.
The BBC has provided a more balanced report on this topic, but other media has been more alarmist in tone.
In reality, multiple risk factors for bowel cancer were never taken into consideration, so we cannot know the dangers associated with antibiotics.
The researchers concluded that their results “provide additional support” for linking antibiotic use to bowel cancer, and that – if the findings are confirmed by other studies – they “suggest the potential need to limit the use of antibiotics”.
However, scientists involved in the study also concede that the bacteria being treated by the antibiotics may also have raised inflammation in the body of participants.
This would suggest that the problem could be caused by infection rather than the treatment.
While it is known that antibiotics have side-effects, there is no compelling reason to be concerned about antibiotics causing cancer, at least based on current research.
It is also important to note that bowel polyps, referenced in this study, are very common, and are not cancerous.
Patients are still recommended to avoid known risk factors for bowel cancer, such as red and processed meat, smoking, drinking excessively, and being obese and inactive.