Small children are adept at getting everything within reach into their mouths. Attentive parents are equally as adept at wiping, disinfecting, and cleaning their children and the environments in which they live. Is this overwhelming fear of germs necessary? Children are at risk of infectious disease from contact with germs, but too little contact with germs can also put our children at risk for weakened immune systems, asthma, and allergies. How can you tell if you are overprotecting your child from germs?
The word "germ" refers to infectious one-cell microbes such as bacteria. Germs, in medical terms, are pathogens, which are harmful. Viruses and fungi may be pathogenic, but technically they aren't germs. However, some medical theorists use the word "germ" to generically refer to all pathogenic organisms, including fungi and viruses. These creatures are all around us; they live on surfaces, in the air, and within our bodies. In fact, there are more bacterial cells in the human body than there are human body cells!
Bacteria can be harmful or helpful to human beings. For example, "good" bacteria in the digestive system help us digest food and produce vitamins that the body cannot make on its own. Not all germs are so friendly. Infectious diseases such as influenza, strep throat, and salmonella are spread through contact with specific types of pathogens, such as viruses and bacteria. In order to prevent the spread of these diseases, it's important to follow basic hygiene rules such as washing your hands after using the restroom, cooking meat thoroughly, and disinfecting dishes that have come into contact with raw meat. It's because of the potentially deadly effect of some pathogens that modern societies have become obsessed with cleaning. This has led to some unintended consequences.
The Hygiene Hypothesis
The last few decades has seen an increase in the number of people affected by allergies. In an effort to explain this, some scientists proposed the "hygiene hypothesis." In 1989, British researcher David P. Strachan noted that children from single-child homes were more likely to suffer from hay fever, allergies, and eczema than children from larger families. He suggested that children living in large families are more likely to come into contact with a wide variety of germs, compared to an only child.
From the time a child is born, he has to defend himself from the myriad of foreign invaders living in his new home. A newborn's immune system is a clean slate. During early childhood, a person "learns" how to fend off pathogens by coming into contact with them. If a newborn is kept in a germ-free environment, the immune system does not have this learning experience and remains unable to prevent attacks by bacteria and viruses. On the other hand, if children have the opportunity to be exposed to pathogens as they are growing up, their immune systems "learn" how to fight off these infections.
When your child gets sick, your immediate response is to get a remedy for the illness. But the human body's immune system is a built-in method for halting the spread of pathogens, and sometimes it is not given the chance to do its job. A recent study published in The American Journal of Epidemiology showed that the risk of a child developing asthma and allergies by age six significantly increased if the child received antibiotics before the age of six months. The cause of this link is unknown, but other studies have linked early childhood antibiotics with immune system problems later in life.
In addition, the heavy reliance of people of all ages on antibiotic products has led to the creation of super-bacteria that are resistant to most antibiotics available today. The spread of methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, is attributed to the overuse of antibiotics.
What's a concerned parent to do? Check your cabinets at home. If they are well-stocked with antibacterial wipes, triclosan-laced soaps, and anti-microbial sprays, you may be overdoing it. Keeping a completely sanitized house prevents your growing child from being exposed to microbes that will allow for the healthy development of a strong immune system. This doesn't mean you have to spread dirt around the floor and let the chickens come inside, but letting your child handle unsterilized toys is probably safe. Also, when your child gets sick, talk to the doctor about treatment options and know that a strong course of antibiotics isn't always the best solution.
Set your sights on long-term health for your young ones, and try not to reach for the hand sanitizer every time they pet the dog.