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Are severe common cold infections in childhood linked to developing asthma? A Q&A with researcher Dr Helen Groves from Queen’s University Belfast.

26 Sep
Groves helen

Investing in high-quality, ground-breaking local research is at the heart of what we do, and we are dedicated to advancing the prevention, treatment and care of chest, heart and stroke conditions within Northern Ireland. We have invested almost £9 million into research in local universities and hospitals since 1994, funding treatments, medications, therapies, rehabilitation programmes and cures.

This year we were delighted to fund a piece of research at Queen’s University Belfast which is asking the question, are severe common cold infections in childhood linked to developing asthma?

What’s your study about? 

Does having a serious lung infection from a common-cold virus as an infant cause childhood asthma or is it an effect of already having asthma?

We know infants who get a serious common-cold lung infection are more likely to develop asthma, but we do not know why. It may be that common-cold lung infections in infants cause damage that leads to asthma. On the other hand, some children, such as those with a family history of asthma, may have a serious common-cold infection when they are young because they are already getting asthma symptoms.

One way to decide if asthma is caused by serious common-cold lung infections in infants, is to prevent these infections and see if fewer children develop asthma. Until now it has not been possible to prevent the majority of common cold infections in infants. However, when the COVID-19 pandemic started in 2020, the government enforced a lockdown by restricting travel, closing schools and advising people to wear face-coverings to stop COVID-19 spreading. These measures also meant that infants were much less likely to catch the common-cold.

We think this is an important opportunity to answer our research question. Most children born during the early part of the COVID-19 pandemic would not have encountered a common-cold virus or suffered from a serious common cold infection in their early life. We would like to find out if less children in this group developed asthma compared to infants who were exposed to the common-cold viruses before the lockdown.

How will you do it? 

We will use anonymised information collected for two groups of children. Group one will include children born at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Group two will include children born from for five years before the pandemic- this will help us understand the normal pattern for asthma in the time before the pandemic lockdown began. This pattern will let us figure out what should have happened to childhood asthma levels if there had not been a lockdown. By comparing what we think should have happened to what actually did happen following the lockdown we can answer our research question.

The things we want to know are:

How many children from each group developed asthma. (We can do this by checking if they went to hospital with symptoms of asthma or were prescribed a medication used to treat asthma like inhalers etc.).

How many infants from each group went to hospital with a common cold lung infection and how old they were.

We will then find out if children were less likely to get asthma if they were born at the early part of the COVID-19 pandemic compared to children born when common-cold viruses were spreading as usual before the pandemic.

What difference do you think your research could make? 

This study will help answer important questions for development of asthma in children.

Knowing whether having a serious lung infection with a common-cold virus as a young infant causes asthma is very important. If this is the case, preventing children from developing these serious lung infections becomes even more important.

This study will also help us learn if not having a common-cold infection as a young infant is a bad thing. It may be that catching the common-cold virus for the first time as an older infant makes you more likely to develop asthma later. This is important for guiding parents whether to try and protect their young infants from getting a common-cold infection. This would also be important in guiding government decisions about the risks to children if any future lockdowns are considered.

New vaccinations and medicines to prevent serious common-cold infections are being developed and should be available to give to patients within a few years. It is important to find out whether using these new vaccines and medicines to stop serious common-cold lung infections in infants might help prevent them developing asthma. Therefore, this study could help doctors to decide which children should, or should not, get any new vaccine or medication in the future.