Have we gone germ crazy? We look at whether society has gone over the top with hygeine and whether this could actually be harming our children's health.
As a society we have become hygiene mad, we sterilise our homes, our possessions and even ourselves with anti-bacterial products that promise to kill more nasties than ever before. While there is no doubt that there have been amazing improvements in the prevention and treatment of disease over the last century, there is a growing body of evidence that suggests we may be going over the top in our fight against germs.
Our immune systems are already up and running before we are born thanks to antibodies passed across the placenta from our mother, however to provide us with the protection we need to fight disease they continue to adapt and develop throughout our infancy. In the first few years of life we actually need to be exposed to a certain level of germs for our immune system to develop healthily. Without this exposure our body is unable to recognise invading cells and create the antibodies that stop them from harming us. For this reason it is possible that our excessive use of anti-bacterial products has actually begun to suppress our immune responses.
This growing school of thought is based on the belief that the recent rise in allergic and autoimmune conditions is a result of insufficient exposure to bacterias, viruses and other nasties in our first years of life. So much so that our immune systems simply don't learn to distinguish between harmful and friendly substances and so respond where no response is needed. For this reason more and more children are suffering from asthma, hay fever and other allergies than ever before. It is also believed that this immune suppression may be linked to the increase in autoimmune diseases such as diabetes, multiple sclerosis and arthritis later in life as our immune systems are so under worked that it begins to attack the body's own cells.
There is a substantial amount of research to support this hypothesis, with children who have many siblings, live in a rural environment, have house pets or spend lots of time with other children in their first years of life, found to have far fewer allergies and immune conditions than 'normal', therefore supporting the idea that germ exposure in early years really does help to build up the immune systems ability to protect.
Is anti-bacterial cleaning necessary?
While anti-bacterial cleaning products have now become something of a norm it may be better for your own and your children's health to switch back to the regular variety. Firstly, when used in the home antibacterial products are no better than their regular counterparts in preventing common illnesses. Washing your hands with soap and water is the best way to protect yourself and your children from bugs. Secondly, as discussed above, too sterile an environment doesn't facilitate healthy development of the immune system. Finally, overuse of antibacterial products may actually be responsible for the increasing incidence of antibiotic resistant diseases. This is because rather than just removing germs from our homes antibacterial products encourage them to mutate and become resistant to the cleaning products we're currently using. This is such a big issue that the World Health Organisation recommended as far back as 2000 that anti-bacterial products aren't suitable for day to day use.
What to do
As parents this poses a big dilemma, all you want is for your little ones to grow up healthy so do you believe the adverts that tell you to kill every germ in sight or do you take a more laid back approach? The best advice you can possibly follow is to let your children be children, let them play outside and get dirty, encourage them to interact with others and don't stress if they're not 100% clean all the time. As long as you teach them to wash their hands properly after the toilet and before they touch food they should grow up with healthy immune systems even if every inch of your home hasn't been disinfected.
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