Are We Too Clean For Our Own Good?

Where did this idea that you could be too clean originate? This idea is based on the “hygiene hypothesis” which suggests that our current cleanliness is bad for your health. The results of a 1989 study by Professor David Strachan said that lack of exposure to childhood germs is responsible for the rise in allergies and asthma.  Nostalgic postings on Facebook about the childhood memories of drinking from water hose, playing in the dirt, and riding in the back of a pickup truck seem to say that these activities are protection.  Comments abound of “Look at me, I’m just fine.” Well, I’m not sure about the pickup truck part, but the other may have some value.

Allergies and asthma in our kids is steadily rising. Forty percent of children are being diagnosed with allergies and asthma. Is it true that it is beneficial to be raised on the farm? The answer is yes. The exposure to both good and bad germs seems to allow a child to develop immunities that he carries throughout life.

The most common food allergy is peanuts followed by milk and shellfish. Currently, television physicians are explaining the newest research on keeping your child from developing peanut allergies. Guess what? You let them have peanuts! Small quantities allow the immune system to build up antibodies until they have adjusted to the allergen. Small germ exposures from older siblings bringing germs home or day care helps build immunity.  Resistance to allergies can be increased by having a pet in the house.

Scientific evidence says if you are an only child and grow up in a “sterile” environment you could be destined for wheezing, burning eyes, runny nose, coughing, and a miserable allergy season.  Decreasing family size, improved household sanitation, higher standards of cleanliness, and more efficient methods of cleaning to produce a “clean environment” have improved public health and home hygiene.  This has deleted some of our old friends, the good germs,  but relaxing our hygiene may expose us to new bad germs that make us sick.

It appears that our immune system needs a workout during early life or there are consequences. People who grew up on a farm before there was air conditioning and exposed to pollen have less allergies. As children play less outside and are less exposed, it seems natural that allergies can increase.  Does pollution play a role? The evidence about the effect of pollution on allergies seems to be contradictory and controversial.  Not enough validated studies have the answers. Good hygiene is about preventing the spread of disease causing germs and no amount of cleaning can rid our environment of germs.  Good hygiene should not be sacrificed to prevent the risk of allergies. Just remember, making mud pies and “Lassie” is good for your kids.  And, the next time you see that dust mite mattress commercial on TV, think again. We could be too clean for our own good.


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