ASTHMA inhalers can stunt the growth of children, according to a study involving thousands of youngsters.
During the first year of treatment, the widely used remedies cut growth rates by about half a centimetre, scientists said.
But they and other experts stressed that slight loss of growth was a small price to pay for protection against potentially lethal asthma attacks.
Evidence also suggested the effect could be minimised by using lower doses of the drugs, with as little as one puff fewer per day helping.
Scientists reviewed trial data on more than 8,000 young people aged 18 and under with mild to moderate asthma. The research focused on corticosteroid inhalers, which are prescribed for both adults and children with persistent asthma.
Writing in the Cochrane Library, a collection of publications designed to help with healthcare decisions, the team assessed the effects of the drugs on children’s growth. Lead author Dr Linjie Zhang, from the Federal University of Rio Grande in Brazil, said: “The evidence we reviewed suggests that children treated daily with inhaled corticosteroids may grow approximately half a centimetre less during the first year of treatment.
“But this effect is less pronounced in subsequent years, is not cumulative, and seems minor compared to the known benefits of the drugs for controlling asthma and ensuring full lung growth.”
The review looked at 25 trials involving 8,471 children and teenagers up to 18 years old. It found that, as a group, corticosteroids suppressed growth rates when compared with inactive placebos or non-steroidal drugs.
Fourteen of the trials, with 5,717 participants, reported growth over the course of a year.
Use of asthma inhalers was found to cut half a centimetre from an average annual growth rate of six to nine centimetres.
A second review by the same researchers examined data from 22 trials in which children were treated with low or medium doses of inhaled corticosteroids.
In these trials, reducing inhaler doses by about one puff a day improved growth by a quarter of a centimetre per year.
Samantha Walker, director of research and policy at the charity Asthma Research UK, said: “Half a centimetre in growth is a small price to pay for medicine which may save your child’s life.
“Uncontrolled asthma can substantially increase the likelihood of asthma attacks, hospitalisation and even death and we know that inhaled steroids, taken regularly, significantly reduce the likelihood of these events happening.”