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Lung consequences in adults born prematurely

Abstract

Although survival has improved significantly in recent years, prematurity remains a major cause of infant and childhood mortality and morbidity. Preterm births (<37 weeks of gestation) account for 8% of live births representing >50 000 live births each year in the UK. Preterm birth, irrespective of whether babies require neonatal intensive care, is associated with increased respiratory symptoms, partially reversible airflow obstruction and abnormal thoracic imaging in childhood and in young adulthood compared with those born at term. Having failed to reach their optimal peak lung function in early adulthood, there are as yet unsubstantiated concerns of accelerated lung function decline especially if exposed to noxious substances leading to chronic respiratory illness; even if the rate of decline in lung function is normal, the threshold for respiratory symptoms will be crossed early. Few adult respiratory physicians enquire about the neonatal period in their clinical practice. The management of these subjects in adulthood is largely evidence free. They are often labelled as asthmatic although the underlying mechanisms are likely to be very different. Smoking cessation, maintaining physical fitness, annual influenza immunisation and a general healthy lifestyle should be endorsed irrespective of any symptoms. There are a number of clinical and research priorities to maximise the quality of life and lung health in the longer term not least understanding the underlying mechanisms and optimising treatment, rather than extrapolating from other airway diseases.

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