Germs: Cleanliness is Next to Sickliness

Dear Mr. Dad: With all the talk about bird flu and swine flu I’m in a panic about germs. I’m putting antibacterial soaps all over my house and hand sanitizers in the car and my kids’ backpacks. Is there anything else I can do?

A: The most important thing you can do right now is relax. There are a number of ways to reduce the risk that you or your children will get the flu (or come in contact with other dangerous germs), and antibacterial soaps and hand sanitizers are at the bottom of the list: Get a flu shots every year, stay away from people who are sick, cover mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing, wash hands thoroughly with soap and water (skip the antibacterial stuff, though—more on that in a minute), keep your hands away from your eyes, nose, or mouth (that’s the way most germs get into our body), get plenty of sleep, and eat right.

As far as antibacterial soap is concerned, research is showing that exposing our kids (and ourselves) to germs helps keep our immune systems strong. Children who grow up in houses with cats or dogs are less likely to develop pet allergies. And kids in daycare—where, as we all know, they’re exposed to just about every conceivable communicable disease—are less likely to be sick when they’re older.

Two interesting studies that talk about the importance of exposure to germs just came out. In the first, researchers compared children born in the U.S. with children born in countries that aren’t quite as obsessed with germs and cleanliness as we are. More than a third of U.S.-born children develop allergies, compared to only a fifth of foreign-born kids do. U.S.-born babies also significantly lower rates of asthma and skin conditions.

Interestingly, the protective effect of being born outside the U.S. doesn’t last forever. While the children start out healthier for the first few years, their immunity gradually declines, and by the time they’ve lived here for about 10 years, they’re just as likely to develop allergies as American-born kids.
The second study dealt with the “microbiome,” which refers to all the bacteria, microbes, fungus, and other organisms that live in or on us. The fact that millions of microscopic life forms are literally crawling all over us is enough to make most people start itching and run for the shower. But don’t. Those little guys (well, some of them) help keep us healthy.

Researchers in Sweden found that children of parents who clean their pacifiers by sucking on them are significantly less likely to develop asthma and eczema, both of which are thought to be caused by allergic reactions. That may sound disgusting to some people, but plenty of us do it (yes, I did it a lot when my kids were little).

According to the study’s lead researcher, Bill Hesselmar of the University of Gothenburg, sucking their child’s pacifier transfers some of the relatively harmless bacteria from the parent’s mouth to the baby. “We think that these bacteria … stimulate the immune system,” Hesselmar wrote in the study. And that helps the immune system keep from going crazy when it’s assaulted by allergens like cats, pollen, shellfish, and peanuts. The study was published in the journal Pediatrics. Read an excerpt here.

So does this mean that your family should stop washing your hands, or that you should expose them to every sick child in the neighborhood? Not at all. But it does mean that before you invest in haz-mat suits for everyone, you slow down. Eating a little dirt now and then is probably more of a good thing than a bad one.

Whatcha think?