With all the hype about H1N1 and other flu and cold viruses, we have become an uber-clean society, where hand sanitizers and disinfectant wipes are as common in households as the paper towel. But is this cleanliness having an effect on our children?
Most experts conclude that our desire to be super clean and safe from germs may actually be hurting our children. While there is a legitimate cause of concern with serious illnesses, such as H1N1, we may have gone overboard when it comes to protecting our children from dirt and germs.
Thom McDade, PhD, associate professor and director of the Laboratory for Human Biology Research at Northwestern University states that, “Just as a baby’s brain needs stimulations, input, and interaction to develop normally, the young immune system is strengthened by exposure to everyday germs so that it can learn, adapt, and regulate itself.” In a recent study McDade also found that children who were exposed to more animal feces and had more cases of diarrhea before age 2 had less incidence of inflammation in the body as they grew into adulthood. This inflammation has been linked to chronic adulthood illnesses, such as heart disease, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s. The study analyzed data collected from thousands of children over two decades in the Philippines.
“We are moving beyond this idea that the immune system is just involved in allergies, autoimmune diseases and asthma, and beginning to think about its role in inflammation and other degenerative diseases,” McDade adds.
According to medical professionals, we are over sanitizing infants’ environments that may cause more harm than good. It is a parent’s desire to keep their child from germs, but in that desire, we may be depriving them the opportunity to build a strong immune system.
Hand washing is still the number one prevention of spreading infections and diseases, as discovered by Louis Pasteur and Joseph Lister more than 160 years ago. By no means is this study suggesting that we let our little ones run around covered in dirt and filth. But it is meant to serve as an eye-opener to parents that a little prevention goes a long way in preventing the spread of germs. The old adage, “everything in moderation” may apply quite well to this study. Being dirty is fun for kids, and a little dirt may actually improve their health into adult hood.
“I hope this research will promote some thinking about the potential cost of a zealous public health effort to promote hand washing and hand sanitizer use,” McDade said.