The Dirt on Dirt: Is Hyper-Hygiene Making Us Too Clean?

Your toddler is playing in the dirt again or exploring some unidentifiable substance from who knows where. It makes you cringe, and your instinct is to immediately wash those little hands. Dog slobber? Yuck. Dirty toys? Get out the antibacterial wipes! And the three-second rule, which allows kids to eat food off the floor if it’s retrieved quickly, is simply not your style.

But wait.

If you’re a parent who works hard to keep your kid clean and avoid unsanitary situations, you may be making a mistake. Growing evidence suggests that in many cases, rather than protecting babies and kids from disease, a sterilized and tightly controlled environment may actually set children up for a lifetime of allergies and other immune system conditions.

Young children’s immune systems develop by exposure to microorganisms, including bacteria, viruses, algae and fungi, as well as by good nutrition, plenty of sleep and getting routine vaccinations. A strong immune system is believed to make children less likely to develop allergies and more likely to fight off germs that can cause illness.

So, if your baby drops his pacifier on the floor, you might want to think twice before swooping in to disinfect it or replace it with a new one. In fact, you might be better off cleaning it in your own mouth and returning it to your baby. Yes, plenty of parents do this, and their kids actually have a lower rate of allergies and more robust health, according to a study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

If it makes you nervous to expose your child to dirt or certain foods, you are not alone. Many medical experts believe our nation’s tendency toward hyper-hygiene and fear of germs is at least partially responsible not only for an increase in antibiotic resistance, but also a rise in allergies. The medical field even has a name for this theory: the “hygiene hypothesis.”

In the past 20 years, food allergies in children have increased about 50 percent, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That means about one in eight children has at least one food allergy.

“What has happened is that our immune systems, which were once busy fighting bacteria, parasites and other health problems, are now bored because we have eliminated so many of the day-to-day germs,” said pediatric allergist and immunologist Viviana Sirven, M.D., part of Baptist Health Quality Network. “The immune system doesn’t have enough to do. When something new is introduced in the body, it can go overboard with a huge reaction.”

That “something new” could be a food, medicine, latex, animal dander or just about anything found in the outdoor environment.

Still not convinced? Consider the research. An international study showed that people who grew up on farms suffer from fewer allergies, asthma and hay fever. Adults who had pets as children are less likely to have sensitivities. Another study found that the more peanuts and tree nuts a woman ate during her pregnancy, the lower the risk of her children developing a nut allergy. In other words, exposure to different substances, germs and potential allergens builds up resistance.

If you wince each time your child gets grimy, try to relax. Be more willing to let kids get dirty, play with animals and explore the outdoor environment without antibacterial gel. Melissa Franco, D.O., a primary care physician with Baptist Health Medical Group, suggests a common-sense approach. “I’m all about washing hands to stop the spread of germs, but we don’t need to over-sanitize,” she said. “If a piece of food has dropped on the floor at home, it’s still probably OK for your child to eat it.”

This article was previously published in Baptist Health South Florida’s Resource magazine

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