Antibiotics can trigger deadly fungal infections by disrupting gut’s immune system

Antibiotics can cause life-threatening fungal infections in hospital patients, according to new research. They disrupt immune cells in the gut, increasing risk of the oral condition called thrush, which can be fatal in people with serious illnesses.

The study by U.S. and British scientists identifies for the first time that fungal infections are particularly poorly controlled in the intestines. Unexpectedly, the team also found that where they developed, gut bacteria were able to escape, multiplying the danger.

Administering immune-boosting drugs at the same time could help protect vulnerable individuals, say scientists.

“We knew antibiotics make fungal infections worse. But the discovery bacterial co-infections can also develop through these interactions in the gut was surprising,” says lead author Dr. Rebecca Drummond, of the University of Birmingham, in a statement. “These factors can add up to a complicated clinical situation and by understanding these underlying causes, doctors will be better able to treat these patients effectively.”

The study may also help combat the rise of superbugs, dubbed “one of the biggest threats to mankind” by the World Health Organization. It highlights how antibiotics can have additional impacts that affect how we fight disease – underlying the importance of careful use.

In experiments, mice were treated with a cocktail of antibiotics and then infected with Candida albicans, a common fungal infection that causes thrush in humans. Death rates rose due to infection in the intestine, rather than in the kidneys or other organs.

The study shows, however, that immune-boosting drugs similar to those used in humans reduced disease severity. An analysis of hospital records suggest that similar co-infections occur in patients after treatment with antibiotics.

“These findings demonstrate the possible consequences of using antibiotics in patients who are at risk of developing fungal infections,” adds Drummond. “If we limit or change how we prescribe antibiotics we can help reduce the number of people who become very ill from these additional infections – as well as tackling the huge and growing problem of antibiotic resistance.”

Health experts and politicians have warned we face a return to the medical “dark ages” if action is not taken against antibiotic resistance.

The UK government estimates that superbugs will claim 10 million lives globally each year by 2050. They also threaten many of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, potentially forcing an extra 28 million people into extreme poverty.

The study is published in the journal Cell Host and Microbe.

Report by South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn

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