Giving iron supplements to anaemic children when they have a cold or other upper respiratory tract infection (URTI) significantly improved their iron status without increasing stomach upset or other side effects, according to a recent study at the University of Colombo, Sri Lanka.
Lead researcher Dr Namanjeet Ahluwalia said: "Because of conflicting results from previous studies, physicians preferred to be cautious and generally withhold iron until a child was infection-free - which could delay the benefits of treatment if a child is iron deficient.
"Our study - the first controlled study in young children with recurrent URTI to date - shows no increase in gastro-intestinal or other side effects from supplementation. In fact, children who received the iron supplement experienced nine to 10 fewer sick days than those who did not. Those who did not receive supplementation were sick more often and for longer periods of time," she said.
Ahluwalia added that iron deficiency, which affects about 10 per cent of US infants and toddlers, is a leading health risk factor in high mortality in developing and developed countries. The study shows there is no reason to hold back from correcting this deficiency in children who have upper respiratory tract infections.
The study, published in the January issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, investigated nearly 500 children from Colombo.
Among the study participants with infections, 127 children were given supplements and 52 given a placebo or pills that did not contain iron. One hundred and thirty four children without infection were given iron and 50 given the placebo. All children who were still anaemic at the end of the eight-week study period received supplements containing 60 mg of iron, the recommended daily dose.
Of the children with infections, those who received iron had 29 per cent fewer upper respiratory episodes than those who received a placebo and had infectious episodes that were 40 per cent less severe than those of the children who received placebos. Children who did not have iron deficiency but received iron anyway did not have an increase in colds or stomach upset versus those given placebo.
The authors write: "The higher mean number of illness-free days in the children who received iron than in those who received placebo suggests that iron supplementation is likely to improve the quality of life of these children and ensure better school attendance."