Inhaled steroids, which are often prescribed to children with asthma, are effective at treating the condition, but a new government study shows the drugs permanently stunt growth.
The study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that, on average, adults who were treated for asthma as children with inhaled steroid budesonide (Pulmicort) were a half-inch shorter than their peers. The effect was first noted during treatment, and, while the effect persisted into adulthood, it did not get worse.
WebMD reports that, while it had long been known that steroids stunt growth in children initially, the thought was that the children would catch up later in life. The new study showing long term effects indicates that is not the case.
“This was surprising because in previous studies, we found that the slower growth would be temporary, not affecting adult height,” Dr. Robert Strunk of Washington, who worked on the study, told NBC News.
A study done years ago showed that inhaled steroids were safe, but it did note the height issue. In the original study, 1,000 children aged 5 to 12 who got either budesonide, a non-steroid drug called nedocromil, or a placebo were studied. The new study showed that, even to adulthood, the height difference in the groups remained. The average age of the patients studied was 24 at the time of their last checkup.
Doctors have found, since the original study, that smaller doses of the steroid can be used to treat the asthma effectively and that that may be the key to solving the problem of stunted growth.
William Kelly of the University of New Mexico was one of the doctors on the study team.
“Finding the minimum dose required to control each child’s asthma could help mitigate any potential effects on height,” he said.
While the popular asthma treatment may stunt a child’s growth, it is unlikely that the drugs will stop being widely used since the growth-stunting effect is fairly minor and the steroids are an effective treatment.