Are dirt and germs as bad as we think?

May 17, 2018 | by Uzma Muneer, D.O.
Categories: Healthy Driven Moms

Picture this: A baby’s pacifier falls to the ground. A first-time mom sterilizes it thoroughly before giving it back. With her second baby, she quickly runs it under some water first. By her third child, the mom brushes it off and pops it right back into her baby’s mouth.

Was her third child any worse for the wear?

We spend a lot of time and energy protecting our babies and kids from germs. But some germs could actually help protect them.

Our health is influenced by all the microorganisms inside our bodies and the surrounding environment.

We are learning that exposure to natural healthy bacteria, dirt and germs in early childhood can actually help train the immune system to behave in a certain, protective, way.

Could it be that the reason Americans have so many allergies is because we are too clean? Today’s kids are growing up indoors, in a somewhat sterile environment. They aren’t exposed to a lot of dirt and bacteria. They don’t get to build immunities to common allergens.

The “hygiene hypothesis” states that kids who grow up in too-clean environments may develop hypersensitive immune systems that make them prone to allergies. After all, kids with pets are less likely to develop asthma or allergies. Children living on farms with livestock do even better.

Jack Gilbert, a scientist at the University of Chicago, co-authored a book called Dirt is Good: The Advantage of Germs for Your Child's Developing Immune System. Gilbert cautions parents against over-sterilizing their environment and keeping their kids from ever getting dirty.

Additionally, a recent Johns Hopkins study revealed that babies who are exposed to household germs, pet and rodent dander and roach allergens during their first year of life are less likely to develop allergies, wheezing and asthma later on.

It’s not just our external environment that matters. The microbes and health-promoting bacteria in our gut influence our ability to fight off infections. Recent studies suggest that babies born by vaginal birth and babies that are exclusively breastfed get exposed to the mother’s bacteria, which can help reduce the risk of various health problems later.

Of course, it’s still important for your child to practice good hygiene. Keeping our hands clean is the first line of defense against germs, and one of the most important steps we can take to avoid getting sick. We just need to know not to take it too far.

It’s okay for your child to play outside and interact with animals. Let them play in the mud and dirt and get filthy. They ate a little dirt? No biggie! The dog licked their face. It’s not such a bad thing.

Make sure your children are properly vaccinated and wash their hands, of course, but you don’t need to sterilize everything they are going to touch or put in their mouth. A little exposure to germs here and there could actually protect them.

Learn more about children’s services at Edward-Elmhurst Health.

Related blogs:

Wash those hands; save yourself a trip to the doctor’s office
Should you get your child allergy tested?
Can food allergies in kids be prevented?

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