Common cold a 'major cause' of child cancer

Last updated at 09:33 13 December 2005

The common cold could be a major cause of childhood cancer, a new study claims.

The cold and other minor ailments, such as mild flu or a respiratory virus, may leave children more susceptible to cancers like leukaemia or brain tumours.

Researchers said their study showed that an infection during pregnancy or in early childhood could be a factor in triggering cancer.

However, scientists stressed that people could not 'catch cancer' from a cold as only a very small number of children - already susceptible to the disease - will be affected.

The scientists, led by Dr Richard McNally at Newcastle University, analysed a register of cancer cases diagnosed in young children over a period of 45 years.

They found that a pattern emerged where two types of cancer - leukaemia and brain tumours - repeatedly occurred at similar times and geographical locations.

They said the "space-time clustering" of cases was a pattern typical of diseases caused by infection.

This added weight to the theory that outbreaks of infectious viruses are a potential contributory cause of cancer.

Diseases caused by more constant environmental factors produce clusters of cases in one place over a much longer time period.

Can't catch cancer

However, the scientists stressed that people could not "catch cancer" from the common cold as the infection is only likely to lead to cancer in a very small number of individuals who are already genetically susceptible to the disease.

Dr McNally, from the Newcastle's school of clinical medical sciences, said: "We found that place of birth was particularly significant, which suggests that an infection in the mother while she is carrying her baby, or in a child's early years, could be a trigger factor for the cancer.

"These could be minor, common illnesses that are not even reported to the GP, such as a cold, mild flu or a respiratory virus.

"However, this would only lead to cancer in individuals who already carry mutant cells in their body.

"The virus would hit this mutant cell and cause a second mutation, prompting the onset of cancers like leukaemia or brain tumours."

The findings, published in the European Journal of Cancer, may lead to better preventative measures for cancer and could result in better treatment.

Statistics for the research were taken from the Manchester Children's Tumour Register, which recorded cases of all childhood cancers in 0 to 14-year-olds diagnosed between January 1954 and December 1998.

It covers the areas of Southern Cumbria, Lancashire, Greater Manchester, North West Derbyshire and North Cheshire.

No comments have so far been submitted. Why not be the first to send us your thoughts, or debate this issue live on our message boards.

We are no longer accepting comments on this article.

Who is this week's top commenter? Find out now