Probiotics may be helpful to prevent childhood colds

Earlier this year I wrote about some studies which suggest that probiotic supplementation in infants and children can help to prevent recurrent ear infections.  Very recent evidence (1) suggests that probiotic supplements may also be useful in children in order to prevent common colds.

The study (1) looked to evaluate the effects of probiotic consumption on cold and influenza-like symptom incidence and duration in otherwise healthy children.  The study was well designed and included 326 children aged between 3 and 5 years old.  104 children received an inactive placebo (plain milk), 110 received a probiotic supplement containing the bacteria Lactobacillus acidophilus (mixed into milk) and 112 children received a probiotic supplement containing Lactobacillus  acidophilus in combination with another bacteria Bifidobacterium animalis (also mixed into milk). The children received two doses daily for 6 months

• Compared to the placebo group, children who received the single probiotic had a 53% reduced incidence of fever, 41.4% reduced coughing incidence and 28.2% reduction in rhinorrhea (commonly known as a runny nose!).  The children receiving the probiotic supplement containing two species of bacteria had 72.7% reduced incidence of fever, 62.1% reduction in coughing incidence and 58.8% reducion in runny nose compared to the placebo group 

• Duration of symptoms (fever, coughing and rhinorrhea) was decreased significantly in children taking the single (by 32%) and combined (by 48%) probiotic supplements.

• Antibiotic use was reduced in children taking probiotics, relative to placebo, by 68.4% for the single and 84.2% for the combined probiotic supplement groups!  Many parents do not wish their children to undergo multiple antibiotic treatments in early life for fear of antibiotic resistance occurring later.  Antibiotics also destroy good bacteria in the digestive system which are now recognised as being very important for overall health.

• Subjects receiving both of the probiotic products had significant reductions in days absent from group child care, by around 30% compared with subjects receiving placebo treatment.

The authors conclude (1) that “Daily dietary probiotic supplementation for 6 months was a safe effective way to reduce fever, rhinorrhea, and cough incidence and duration and antibiotic prescription incidence, as well as the number of missed school days attributable to illness, for children 3 to 5 years of age”.

There have been studies (e.g. 2) which have shown that feeding supplements containing probiotics and/or prebiotics are safe in newborn infants and children and seem to increase resistance to infections during the first 2 years of life.  It may well be useful to speak to your GP or practice nurse about probiotic supplements if your child has already had frequent colds and/or antibiotic use or if you just want to give a regular probiotic supplement as a preventative measure.  Antibiotics are really effective at clearing infections but do also kill the good bacteria in the digestive system.  There is evidence to suggest that good bacteria in the digestive system are important for overall immune health and may prevent subsequent infection.  Taking a prebiotic and probiotic supplement after antibiotic therapy is probably a very wise way of re-establishing balance in the digestive system. 

Prebiotic and probiotic supplements specifically designed for children and infants are readily available to buy and can be taken daily.

(1) Leyer GJ et al.  2009.  Probiotic Effects on Cold and Influenza-Like Symptom Incidence and Duration in Children.  Pediatrics: 124: e172-e179.
(2) Kukkonen K et al.  2008.  Long-term safety and impact on infection rates of postnatal probiotic and prebiotic (synbiotic) treatment: randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. Pediatrics. 122(1):8-12.

Written by Ani Kowal