A North Staffordshire research team hopes to prove spending time in the sunshine is the key to improving childhood asthma.
The experts, led by consultant paediatrician Dr Will Carroll, believe many asthma attacks in children can be linked to a deficiency in vitamin D – a substance produced by the body when it is exposed to sunlight.
Their preliminary research has found asthmatic youngsters are hospitalised more often in less sunny parts of the country.
Dr Carroll now hopes to prove that giving children vitamin D supplements will cause asthma complications to fall, in a study part-funded with a £19,884 grant from the North Staffordshire Medical Institute.
He said: “We know from the analysis that in regions of the UK that are more sunny they have lower rates of childhood asthma.
“But between October and February each year, the sun doesn’t get high enough in the sky in the UK to produce vitamin D anyway, so we have to rely on supplementation in those months.
“Previous studies have shown that small doses of vitamin D can reduce asthma exacerbations in children.”
The team, based at Keele University, plans to start with a small study in which asthmatic children will be given either vitamin D or a placebo and the progress of their asthma will be monitored.
They will use this to help them design a much larger controlled trial to take place in several locations around the country.
Dr Carroll, an expert in paediatric lung disease, added: “The purpose of the programme is to show that it’s more effective to give vitamin D to children than a placebo.
“The vitamin D available now is colourless and odourless, so that helps us to do our research. What we’re hoping to find is that it reduces asthma exacerbations in children.”
If the programme proves a success, it could mean dramatic changes to the official health advice around taking children out in the sun.
At the moment, parents are advised to cover kids up as much as possible and use high-factor sunscreen to prevent the risk of burns, heatstroke and ultimately skin cancer.
But if vitamin D is important for respiratory health doctors may start advising that children spend short periods outdoors without sun protection.
He said: “If you cover yourself in sun cream you don’t get vitamin D because you need to have exposure to UVB rays.
“Nearly all children in the UK have insufficient levels of vitamin D. We’re designed as human beings to be semi-clothed and to live outside, we’re not meant to be indoor creatures.”
There are currently 5.4million people living with asthma in the UK – one of the highest rates in Europe – including 1.1million children.
The lung condition killed 1,468 people in 2015 and costs the NHS an average of £1billion a year.
The North Staffordshire Medical Institute is a charity funded by public donations that provides grants for vital medical research in the Staffordshire area.
By Meg Jorsh