Is Perfect Hygiene The Best For Your Child?
The short answer is no. The long answer needs a bit of talk about how the immune system matures and how our society has evolved to treat cleanliness in often absolute terms, which has had mixed consequences for our health. But let’s start with that bit about the immune system. For the first few years of a child’s life he or she is much more vulnerable to germs and viruses than an adult. That’s because the immune system develops and strengthens as the child grows. However, in order to become stronger, the immune system needs to get in contact with pathogens, that is, viruses and bacteria, in order to be able to get familiar with them and fight them off, put very crudely. This is what vaccines do: they supply a tiny amount of pathogens to help the immune system create ways to kill them off. The immune system is smart but it can’t do its work if there are no germs and viruses to recognize and learn to kill.
Enter the modern cult to cleanliness. Antibacterial soaps, wet wipes, ultra-strong detergents, whose commercials convince you that they kill all known germs, a constant flood of information telling us to keep all germs away. Now, let’s press “Pause”. We live in a fairly dirty world and we are constantly, from the moment we’re born, in contact with a huge variety of bacteria and viruses. Detergents and regular hygiene have been invaluable in the fight against many of the worst ones but, at the same time, the strong drive toward complete, perfect hygiene, has, some researchers say, affected the way the immune system develops, by removing much of the germs and viruses it needs to mature, leading to increased risk of allergies and autoimmune diseases. It sure sounds scary, but the hygiene hypothesis is still just a hypothesis, not a proven theory. Things get a bit scarier when we throw in the latest global drive toward curbing the use of antibiotics due to the increasing number of drug-resistant bacteria emerging because of widespread abuse of antibiotics.
The thing is that many of us seem to have fallen victim to a “just in case” thinking. Let’s scrub the floor and all surfaces in the kitchen and the bathroom every day, just in case some bacteria try to creep in. Let’s use wet wipes every time our kid touches another kid’s toys or a dry leaf on the sidewalk. Let’s have antibiotics so the cold doesn’t get worse, just in case. These are all extreme examples but, to be fair, we have brought cleanliness to an extreme and we’re now reaping not just the benefits but the rotten fruits of it, too. Of course, hygiene is very important for health, and of course it would be stupid to neglect the dangers of pathogens, but let’s try to be reasonable about it all. While it’s definitely a bad idea to let your child play with the garbage, it may be just as bad to make him wash his hands twenty times a day, just in case. All with good measure is the safest way. Let’s remember that being healthy actually means being able to fight off most of the microorganisms that literally attack our bodies on a daily basis. To do this, we need our personal army, the immune system, in top shape, and no army can be in top shape if it’s idle most of the time, not getting any training and being kept in the dark about new threats.