Juvenile arthritis is the sixth most common childhood disease, affecting more than 300,000 children and teens in the United States.
Yet no one knows why some children get illnesses like juvenile arthritis (also known as JA, JIA, or JRA), and others do not.
But we may be getting closer to an answer.
Studies done in recent years have shown a possible link between antibiotics and JA, possibly tied to the overuse of antibiotic drugs.
A 2015 study published in the medical journal Pediatrics declared, “Recent evidence has linked childhood antibiotic use and microbiome disturbance to autoimmune conditions.”
The study tested whether or not there was an actual link between JA and antibiotic exposure. Researchers concluded that, “Antibiotics were associated with newly diagnosed JIA in a dose- and time-dependent fashion in a large pediatric population. Antibiotic exposure may play a role in JIA pathogenesis, perhaps mediated through alterations in the microbiome.”
In another study, researchers concluded that antibiotics may be, at times, unnecessarily prescribed or overprescribed, especially to children.
Whether this has anything to do with the problem of childhood autoimmune diseases like JA remains to be seen.
It is still problematic. In 2014, it was estimated that 11.4 million prescriptions for antibiotics that were written for children or teens were deemed to be unnecessary.
This overuse or misuse of antibiotics can possibly disturb the immune process and disrupt the microbiome in JA patients.
A doctor who was not connected to any of the previously mentioned studies concludes this disturbance may be an explanation as to why there seems to be a link between antibiotic use and JA.
Dr. Charles Weaver, an oncologist, and chief executive officer of Omni Health Media, which runs RA Connection and A Woman’s Health Magazine, told Healthline, “The human microbiome, a collection of trillions of microbes living in and on the human body, is increasingly believed to play a role in basic life processes and disease. Antibiotic exposure can alter the microbiome and increasing evidence links microbiome alterations with the development of autoimmune conditions including JIA and IBD.”
“The most recent evidence linking antibiotic exposure with the development of JA is from the study reported by University of Pennsylvania researchers,” he added. “It is estimated that there are over 10 million unnecessary antibiotic prescriptions in children each year. An increased emphasis should be placed on avoiding unnecessary antibiotic use, because this may be one way to prevent the development of these life-changing autoimmune diseases.”
Other possible factors
While antibiotics are often necessary and even lifesaving, overuse or misuse of them comes with risks.
The risk of developing an autoimmune disease like JA just might be one of them.
But, other factors remain a concern, too, such as antibiotic resistance, which has become so important that in 2015 President Barack Obama implemented an interagency Task Force for Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria and National Action Plan to Combat Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria.
Medications, ranging from opioids to antibiotics, can be important in managing chronic illnesses like JA. But overusing them can make medical problems worse, whether the patient is an adult or a child.
The Arthritis Foundation advises medication adherence and education on the benefits and risks of any drug, arthritis-specific or not. More information is available on its medication safety page.