Infection in childhood: does it increase the risk of mental disorder?

A large-scale study published in December 2018 by the journal JAMA Psychiatry associates infections treated in childhood with an increased risk for the development of mental disorders in the later stages of life.

The study, carried out in Denmark, used as basis the health records of the Danish population, which includes details such as hospitalizations, medication prescriptions and mental health diagnoses .

Thus, it was possible to observe the medical history of approximately 1.1 million children born between January 1, 1995 and June 30, 2012.

The researchers also used data from the Danish National Prescription Register, which contains information from all pharmacies in the country, allowing them to observe, in detail, which drugs have been more or less prescribed since 1995.

Crossing all of these data with others obtained from the Danish Psychiatric Research and Records Center, the researchers were able to come to the conclusion that childhood infections can increase the chances of developing mental disorders before adulthood.

According to research data, among the approximately 1 million children who took part in the study, those who were hospitalized for serious infections had an 84% increase in the risk of being diagnosed with mental disorders before the age of 18 and 42% more chances of needing any psychotropic medication.

The use of antibiotics has also been reported as a problem. Those who received this type of medication as a form of treatment also had an increased risk for the development of mental disorders.

Children who have been treated with antivirals, however, have not shown this relationship.

Associated mental disorders

According to the researchers, infections treated during childhood can increase the risk mainly for diseases like OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), mental retardation and tics.

Other high-risk disorders include schizophrenia spectrum disorders, personality and behavioral disorders, autism spectrum disorder, ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), challenging opposition disorder and conduct disorder.

It is worth remembering that the results of this study are not a proof of causality , that is, it is not because a child has had a serious infection that he will necessarily develop any of these disorders.

The findings made by Danish researchers only offer evidence that links infections and the immune system to a wide range of mental disorders in children and adolescents.

This caveat is contained in the very conclusion of the article, which shows us that more studies are needed to support these findings and increase our understanding of mental disorders.

What do antibiotics have to do with it?

Antibiotics are drugs used to fight bacteria that infect the body and are the cause of a disease.

But there is a problem with the use of antibiotics: these drugs attack all the bacteria in the body, not just the ones that are causing the symptoms.

Our body has millions of bacteria and they are usually located in the intestine. They are the “good” bacteria. Many of them assist the digestive process and play an intricate relationship with the digestive and immune systems.

After the brain, the intestine is the part of the body that houses the largest number of neurons.

They are responsible for the autonomous functions of the digestive system – that is, they are the ones that make the intestine move, transporting and absorbing what we eat – and also for much of the production of hormones such as serotonin , an important substance for several functions, among they control mood.

When we take the antibiotic, it is not only the bacterium that causes the symptoms that is affected, but all the bacteria that live in our body, including those that are in the intestine.

This causes the entire digestive system to become unregulated, as many “good” bacteria end up being destroyed in the treatment of infection.

The hypothesis raised by the researchers is that the intestinal flora is damaged due to the action of antibiotics and this, in some way, has an effect on the hormonal production of neurons present in the intestine.

This hormonal dysregulation can have effects on the brain, leading children to have problems with brain development, which would be a possible cause for mental disorders.

Does this mean that I should not give my child antibiotics?

Definitely not! Antibiotics are revolutionary drugs. To give you an idea, the life expectancy before we started using penicillin (the first antibiotic discovered) was a measly 47 years.

It is thanks to this class of drugs and other discoveries in medical science that we have managed to increase this number to 75 years in Brazil.

The truth is that it is necessary to be careful with the use of antibiotics, as we still don’t know all the pros and cons regarding this medication.

The misuse and indiscriminate use, for example, is leading to the emergence of superbugs, more deadly and more difficult to be exterminated.

Learn more: Misuse of antibiotics creates superbugs that can kill

Therefore, the most correct thing to do is not to take antibiotics on your own, but only when the doctor prescribes it. And, when he prescribes, strictly follow the treatment, respecting the schedules and restrictions that come with the use of this medication.


The human body is much more complex than it looks and there is still a lot to be investigated. Even this relationship between childhood infections, antibiotics and mental disorders still needs to be evaluated and validated in future research.

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