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Antibiotics, Use with discretion

Increased use of antibiotic drugs has been linked to greater risk for breast cancer in two different long-term studies. A case-controlled study comparing 2,266 breast cancer patients older than 19 years with 7,953 healthy female controls recently found breast cancer risk increased with antibiotic use as reported by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). An earlier Finnish study of close to 10,000 women showed similar results.

"To put (the JAMA study) into perspective, the risk for developing breast cancer from hormone replacement use is about 30 to 40 percent increase in risk," says epidemiologist Roberta Ness, MD, MPH, at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health. "Here we're talking about doubling in risk for those women who are using chronic antibiotics."

While evidence is insufficient to suggest a cause and effect relationship, "prudent use of antibiotics" is critical, says Christine M. Velicer, PhD, lead author of the JAMA study. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the overuse of antibiotic drugs (all too often prescribed for colds, coughs, and flu brought on by viruses) has exploded in the past decade. These medications are effective for bacterial infections only, and as their overuse continues, more and stronger drug-resistant strains of bacteria develop.

The JAMA study recommends that you use antibiotics only when you need them, says oncologist Stefan Gluck, MD. Study authors speculate that these drugs may interfere with the body's own immune response by disturbing normal digestive processes, as well as the release of vitamin C and other protective nutrients. But to date, research is insufficient to show whether breast cancer-predicted to kill more than 40,000 American women in 2004-is caused by antibiotics or the underlying infections or inflammations for which these drugs were prescribed.

"Equally unknown," adds Dr. Gluck, "is why some women have more infections than others." Further investigations are needed to explore if women with weakened immune function overall are at risk or if other factors such as underlying infections are important.

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