Let Them Eat Dirt: Why Children Need Germs

Toddler girl with muddy hands

As parents of any young child will attest, it takes a near exhaustive effort to keep their kid clean. Despite how disgusting parents may find it, the basic nature of curious young children requires that they touch everything in their environment. Whether the next item that gets placed into a child’s mouth is the dog’s bone, a nickel found on the sidewalk, or something that came out of his nose all depends on what’s within arm’s reach.germs for kids

We live in a society consumed with cleanliness, and the rise of such diseases as swine flu and bird flu have done little to allay our fears. Recent public service campaigns by health officials in the U.S. encouraging regular hand washing and using hand sanitizer gel help reinforce the need for people to reduce their exposure to germs.

But has all of this talk made parents too concerned that what their children get into will have long-term health consequences? While concerns over the spread of infectious diseases are legitimate, has our society gone overboard trying to protect children from germs?  And how clean an environment do our children really need to maintain their health?

The Hygiene Hypothesis

As researchers continue to study the subject, more information begins to mount that suggests exposing infants to germs may provide them greater protection from illnesses such as asthma and allergies later on in life.

A theory referred to as the “hygiene hypothesis” states that when children receive limited exposure to viruses, bacteria, and parasites early in life, they have an increased chance of developing asthma, allergies, and other types of autoimmune diseases when adults. Conversely, children with older brothers or sisters, who grew up on a farm, or who spent time in daycare at a young age tended to have decreased allergy rates.

To explain this phenomenon, researchers suggest that similar to how a young child’s brain need stimulus in order to properly develop, a child’s immature immune system requires exposure to common germs and bacteria to learn how to strengthen and adapt itself to disease.

Research has even begun to offer clues about what types of germs children need exposure to. A recent study conducted at Northwestern University’s Laboratory for Human Biology Research found that children who were exposed to animal feces and who suffered from more cases of toddler’s diarrhea prior to age 2 were less likely to suffer from inflammation in the body as they got older. A number of chronic illnesses adults suffer from, including diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and heart disease, have all been linked to inflammation. This suggests that microbial exposure during early childhood may hold the key to keeping inflammation back in adulthood.

What’s Too Clean?

germs for children

The majority of germs that we encounter in our environment and in our bodies have been with humans for thousands of years. However, as our lifestyles changed over the last century, many of these harmless microbes began to disappear from our bodies. These microbes play an important role in the physiological functions of our bodies, but because of modern conveniences, have begun to vanish.

By over-sanitizing a children’s environments to keep them from getting sick, parents may be inadvertently depriving children from the ability to build a stronger immune system. On the flip side, by allowing children to become exposed to bacteria, parents may actually make their children healthier.

What’s a Parent to D0?

Researchers at the Laboratory for Human Biology Research recommend that parents start taking a more measured approach to how they deal with germs around their children. While children don’t need to be overly exposed to germs, parents needn’t worry about sanitizing everything their child comes into contact with. Researchers would also like to see parents establish a line of communication with their pediatrician about whether to use antibiotics to treat every fever their child has. Overusing antibiotics can play a significant role in how well the immune system can fight infection.

Timothy Lemke blogs about the latest health trends for Dr. Robert McDowell, a dentist in Gladstone, OR at McDowell Family & Cosmetic Dental.  Photo credits: Greenwala and CityMDNYC

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