The last thing any parent wants is for their child to get sick. Dangerous germs could be lurking anywhere, so many parents dutifully disinfect anything that could threaten their child’s immune system. But could an obsession with sanitization actually be harming children in the long run?
It may seem counterintuitive, but there is mounting evidence that letting your kids get sick early in life is good for them. In fact, natural exposure to a variety of germs not only helps young children develop a more robust immune system ready to respond to major threats later in life, but it could also ward off allergic and autoimmune disorders throughout childhood.
Are we too clean?
Modern public health practices — including water supply decontamination and safe food handling practices, modern medicine, and the use of antibacterial cleaners — have revolutionized society. We are no longer endangering ourselves and our children with an onslaught of diseases and infections. However, as our hygiene and sanitation practices advance, researchers have observed a marked increase in children being diagnosed with autoimmune and allergic conditions.
According to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), allergic conditions among children in urban environments in industrialized countries have increased from 1997 to 2011. They found children affected by skin allergies rose from about 7 to 12 percent, and rates have continued to trend upward. Autoimmune disorders, such as Type 1 diabetes, are also on the rise among children.
One possible explanation is that Western society’s fixation on cleanliness, especially when it comes to young children, means kids have less opportunity to naturally develop their immune systems.
“A child’s immune system needs to be challenged early in life in order to produce antibodies against bacteria and viruses,” says Dr. Bina Adigopula, a pediatrician affiliated with Sharp Grossmont Hospital.
Researchers believe the human immune system developed two types of biological defenses. If one system is weaker because it hasn't been trained well enough, the other system can become hyper-reactive to the environment — potentially leading to eczema, allergies and autoimmune diseases.
Protected by natural exposure
Studies show that children with older siblings have lower rates of allergic conditions and are sick less often. This is likely because the older children expose their siblings to a variety of bacteria and viruses when they share toys or food and drinks.
For children without older siblings, Dr. Adigopula says, “Day care and school are great places to get children exposed to influenza, rhinovirus and other common infections. Children can then naturally produce antibodies to overcome infection and will be less sick when they are exposed to the same virus or bacteria again.”
While it is not recommended to intentionally infect children or forgo cleanliness, children should naturally encounter germs as they explore more and more of their world.
“Parents have to take a middle-of-the-road approach. By allowing children to play outside or with other children, they can develop antibodies. Parents should encourage good hand washing habits after playtime to avoid germs like E.coli, staph and MRSA,” Dr. Adigopula says.
Building a strong immune system
There are ways to ensure your child’s immune system gets the right start beyond allowing safe exposure to common bacteria and viruses. Other factors that influence immune development include proper diet, exercise and sleep. Here are some ways to boost your kid’s immune system strength:
- Give your kids a well-balanced diet with foods that are rich in vitamins and antioxidants, as well as fermented foods, such as yogurt or kombucha, which help develop the digestive immune system.
- Make sure they drink plenty of water and fluids, avoiding sugary beverages.
- Establish thorough but reasonable hand washing habits.
- Make sure they spend plenty of time being active, especially with other kids.
- Ensure they get adequate sleep, which is vital in rebuilding the immune system.