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Long-Term Use of Antibiotics May Increase Risk of Colon Cancer

antibiotic and colon cancer

Here is another reason you should think carefully about whether you need an antibiotic or not.


Antibiotics are among the most frequently prescribed medications in modern medicine. And they are most definitely useful as they kill bacteria responsible for life-threatening infections.

But not every sniffle needs an antibiotic (they are useless for viral infections, for example), and doctors now are being more selective about prescribing them. Not only do over-prescribing antibiotics lead to bacterial resistance, doctors now suspect too much medicine could also lead to more serious diseases – such as colon cancer.

Researchers with Harvard Medical School suggest that taking antibiotics for an extended period of time during early to middle adulthood increases risk for precancerous growths (polyps) in the colon that could become cancerous.

Lead Researcher Dr. Andrew Chan proposes that the drugs could lead to alterations in the naturally occurring bacteria that live in the intestines – called the microbiome – which could predispose individuals to colon cancer. The disruption could also increase the risk of inflammation, a known risk for colon cancer.

But, before you panic, Dr. Chan warns that the study found the risk to potentially be raised – but not to a level which should cause fear of using necessary medications. It is not clear that the polyps were the result of long-term antibiotic use, just that there was an association.

If you are really concerned about colon cancer, here are the proven steps you can take to reduce risk:

1. Get screened. Screenings are tests that look for cancer before signs and symptoms develop. Colon screenings can often find growths called polyps that can be removed before they turn into cancer. These tests also can find colon cancer earlier, when treatments are more likely to be successful. The American Cancer Society recommends testing starting at age 50 for most people; talk to your doctor about when you should start and which tests might be right for you.

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2. Eat lots of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. Diets that include lots of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains have been linked with a decreased risk of colon cancer. Eat less red meat (beef, pork, or lamb) and processed meats (hot dogs and some luncheon meats), which have been linked with an increased risk of colon cancer.

3. Get regular exercise. If you are not physically active, you have a greater chance of developing colon cancer. Increasing your activity may help reduce your risk.

4. Watch your weight. Being overweight or obese increases your risk of getting and dying from colon cancer. Eating healthier and increasing your physical activity can help you control your weight.

5. Don’t smoke. Long-term smokers are more likely than non-smokers to develop and die from colon cancer.

6. Limit alcohol. Colon cancer has been linked to heavy drinking. The American Cancer Society recommends no more than 2 drinks a day for men and 1 drink a day for women. A single drink amounts to 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine or 1½ ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits (hard liquor).

Journal Reference:
Cao Y, Wu K, Mehta R, et al. Long-term use of antibiotics and risk of colorectal adenoma. Gut Published Online First: 04 April 2017. doi: 10.1136/gutjnl-2016-313413

Additional Resource:
American Cancer Society

Photo Credit:
By Microrao - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons