Exposing Children to Germs
15 Oct 2012
As parents, it’s only natural to want to protect your child from harm, whether it’s from an oncoming car or a hot stove. Germs are no exception. Parents who want to protect their children from illness tend to overuse cleaning products, such as antibacterial soap, in order to prevent their kids from catching colds. However, as kids become more sheltered from everyday germs and bacteria, their immune systems are actually weakening. Recent studies are showing that exposing children to germs at an early age can have a huge health payoff for them. Supporting the “right” bacteria can help kids fight off coughs, colds, ear infections, and stomach aches.
Antibacterial products may help to reduce some infections, but they also promote the growth of drug-resistant organisms and weaken the good bacteria within us. In fact, researchers are proposing that the increase in asthma and other inflammatory disease is due to our reduced exposure to microbes, thanks to antibiotics and antibacterials. The “hygiene hypothesis” holds that when babies are exposed to germs, it helps them fight allergies and asthma later. While cleanliness seems like a good idea, it is not how we were designed. Human beings are meant to encounter some microbes and dirt when we are young, since it is how we build our immune systems.
Studies show that kids with older siblings, who grew up on a farm, or who attended day care early in life seem to show lower rates of allergies. Young children’s immune system is strengthened by exposure to everyday germs so that it can learn, adapt, and regulate itself. Most of the germs that we are exposed to regularly and that live on our bodies are not only harmless, but have been around for millennia.
The Right Germs
Ensuring that your kids get the “right” germs is a matter of finding balance. Parents and physicians should carefully consider whether antibiotics should be used for all episodes of illness. Antibiotics eliminate both good and bad bacteria. If your kids have to take antibiotics, make sure they get probiotics, which restore the body’s supply of good bacteria. You can also give your kids foods that naturally contain helpful organisms, such as yogurt, feta cheese, and dark chocolate. When it comes to cleaning your children’s toys or surroundings, it’s best to use common sense. You don’t have to wash or sanitize everything.
Do you think kids should be exposed or sheltered from germs?