When it comes to kids, a clean environment is always best, right? Well, yes… but to a point.
While bleach wipes and hand sanitizer have their place, the hygiene hypothesis may make parents think twice about just how clean they want their home to be.
According to the hygiene hypothesis, a child’s lack of exposure to germs and other infectious agents, especially during their early childhood, may increase their susceptibility to allergic diseases. The theory suggests that a lack of exposure to these agents suppresses the natural development of the child’s immune system, thus leading them to be more susceptible to allergic diseases later in life.
The hygiene hypothesis was formulated by epidemiologist David Strachan in 1989. Strachan tracked the health of families that had migrated to developed countries (from underdeveloped countries) and noted a decrease in the occurrence of infectious diseases but an increase in the families’ development of allergies and autoimmune diseases. He suggested that the hygienic practices of developed nations might contribute to changes in a family’s health. Indeed, at least one out of every five children in developed countries suffers from allergic disease ranging from asthma and allergic rhinitis to eczema.
Strachan also proposed that family sizes may play a part in an increase in allergies. He argues that past days with larger families created more shared exposure to microbes. Smaller families of more modern times do not get the same exposure to microbes, partially because they live in more sterile environments with higher standards of personal cleanliness. (Think tidy suburban houses vs. rural farm country rife with dirt!)
Some scientists don’t think the hygiene hypothesis is adequately supported and worry that buying too heavily into it could undermine the advances in hygiene that have lead to a decrease in infectious diseases. They contend that pollution and our modern diet may have more to do with an increase in our need for allergy treatment than our devotion to cleanliness does.
While more studies are required, it seems as time goes on there is more evidence supporting that the hygiene hypothesis is likely true. And for parents, it may be nice to know that we can worry a bit less about creating a perfectly germ-free environment for their kids. If a microbe or two may prevent a visit to the allergist down the line and save the headache of obsessively cleaning 24/7, more power to the hygiene hypothesis, right?