Children growing up in cities and towns at greater risk of respiratory infections

Image: European Parliament

Children raised in cities and towns are more likely to suffer from respiratory infections
than those growing up in rural areas, according to new research.

And a second study presented at the European Respiratory Society International Congress has also suggested that youngsters living in damp homes or in areas of busy traffic are at increased risk of chest infections.

Researchers say it is important to understand why children who are otherwise healthy can suffer with repeated infections. The first study was presented by Dr Nicklas Brustad, a researcher and physician on the Copenhagen Prospective Studies on Asthma in Childhood (COPSAC) based at Gentofte Hospital and the University of Copenhagen, Denmark.

Over 600 children and their mothers took part in the research from pregnancy until the children were three years old. The team recorded children who were growing up in urban or rural areas and how many respiratory infections they developed. Findings revealed that children living in urban areas had an average of 17 respiratory infections, such as coughs and colds, before the age of three compared to an average of 15 infections in children living in rural areas.

‘Children in urban areas had differences in their immune systems’

Children living in urban areas had differences in their immune systems compared to those living in rural areas. There were also differences in the blood samples from the mothers and babies that correlated with the difference in living environment and number of respiratory infections.

Dr Brustad said: “Our findings suggest that urban living is an independent risk factor for developing infections in early life when taking account of several related factors such as exposure to air pollution and starting day care. Interestingly, changes in the blood of pregnant mothers and newborn babies, as well as changes in the new-born immune system, seem to partly explain this relationship.

“Our results suggest that the environment children live in can have an effect on their developing immune system before they are exposed to coughs and colds. We continue to investigate why some otherwise healthy children are more prone to infections than others and what the implications are for later health. We have several other studies planned that will look for risk factors and try to explain the underlying mechanisms using our large amount of data.”

The second study meanwhile was presented by Dr Tom Ruffles from Brighton and Sussex Medical School and University Hospitals Sussex NHS Foundation Trust, Brighton, UK. This included data on around 1,300 mothers and their children living in Scotland and England.

The mothers completed detailed questionnaires when their children were a year old and again when their children where two years old. These included questions on chest infections, symptoms such as coughing and wheezing, respiratory medication, and exposure to potential environmental risk factors.

‘Dense traffic increases chest infection risks’

Feedback showed that breastfeeding for longer than six months helped protect babies and children from infections, while attending day care increased the risk. Young children living in homes with visible damp were twice as likely to need treatment with an inhaler to relieve respiratory symptoms and twice as likely to need treatment with a steroid inhaler. Living in an area with dense traffic increased the risk of chest infections, and exposure to tobacco smoke increased the risk of coughing and wheezing.

Dr Ruffles said: “This research provides some important evidence about how we can help reduce chest infections in babies and toddlers. The benefits of breastfeeding are well-established, and we should continue to support mothers who want to breastfeed their babies. We should also be making every effort to reduce exposure to infections in day care, keep homes free of damp and mould, reduce tobacco smoking and cut air pollution.”

Professor Myrofora Goutaki, who is chair of the European Respiratory Society’s group on Paediatric respiratory epidemiology, added: “We know that some young children suffer with recurrent coughs and colds, and this can lead on to conditions such as asthma as they grow older. It’s important that we understand any factors that might be contributing to this, such as the conditions where children live and where they are cared for. The more we understand about these factors, the more we can do to protect the developing lungs of these young children.”

Click here for more on both studies.

Author: Simon Weedy

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