Sex differences in child and adolescent physical morbidity: cohort study

Helen Sweeting, Elise Whitley, Alison Teyhan, Kate Hunt

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Background Evidence on sex differences in physical morbidity in childhood and adolescence is based largely on studies employing single/few physical morbidity measures and different informants. We describe sex differences in a wide range of parent/carer-reported physical morbidity measures between ages 4 and 13 years to determine evidence for a generalised pattern of an emerging/increasing female ‘excess’.

Methods Parents/carers (approximately 90% mothers) of the population-based UK ALSPAC cohort provided data on general health, physical conditions/symptoms and infections in their child approximately annually between ages 4 and 13. Logistic regression analyses determined the odds of each morbidity measure being reported in respect of females (vs males) at each age and the sex-by-age interaction, to investigate any changing sex difference with age.

Results Six measures (general health past year/month, high temperature, rash, eye and ear infections) demonstrated an emerging female ‘excess’, and six (earache, stomach-ache, headache, lice/scabies, cold sores, urinary infections) an increasing female ‘excess’; one (breathlessness) showed a disappearing male ‘excess’. Just two showed either an emerging or increasing male ‘excess’. Most changes were evident during childhood (prepuberty). Six measures showed consistent female ‘excesses’ and four consistent male ‘excesses’. Few measures showed no sex differences throughout this period of childhood/early adolescence.

Conclusion Sex differences are evident for a wide range of parent-reported physical morbidity measures in childhood and early adolescence. Far more measures showed an emerging/increasing female ‘excess’ than an emerging/increasing male ‘excess’. Further studies are required to examine whether patterns differ across sociodemographic/cultural groups, and to explain this generalised pattern.
Original languageEnglish
JournalBMJ Paediatrics Open
Issue number1
Early online date17 Dec 2017
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2017

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