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Do 'probiotics' work?

A lot of people these days are taking "probiotics" to help with a host of health problems. Probiotics are live microorganisms, such as bacteria. But these bugs supposedly make people feel better instead of making them sick. This may sound odd. But there's some evidence that this approach could be beneficial, given that we all carry around lots of microorganisms in our bodies to help carry out a host of functions. But do they really work?

Well, a new analysis by a well-respected group says they do, at least for diarrhea. And diarrhea is a major health problem, killing nearly 2 million people, mostly children, each year in developing countries. The primary treatment is hydrating patients to keep them from getting dehydrated. But that doesn't really shorten how long someone is sick. The idea behind giving people probiotics is that those microorganisms may compete with the bacteria, viruses or parasites causing the diarrhea, shortening the illness.

Stephen Allen of the School of Medicine at Swansea University in Britain led an analysis of the scientific literature for the Cochrane Collaboration, a U.K.-based group that regularly evaluates the state of scientific evidence for medical treatments. In this case, the researchers reviewed data from 63 studies with a total of 8,014 patients, including 56 studies involving infants and children. Giving probiotics, along with fluids, reduces the length of diarrhea by about a day and reduces the risk of diarrhea lasting four or more days by 59 percent, the researchers learned. No serious side effects were found.

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