Good Hygiene, Bad Results?
Are Americans too clean? Proponents of the "hygiene hypothesis" argue that a societal emphasis on cleanliness has impaired the immune system's ability to respond as it was meant to. And that has left us open to other illnesses such as severe allergic reactions, gastrointestinal disorders, and autoimmune diseases.
"The evidence for all this is very, very powerful," says Graham A.W. Rook, M.D., at the University College London. "It's very easy to show if you live on a farm or keep a dog, you're less likely to have these disorders. If you are the youngest child in a big family, you're less likely to have these disorders."
Good hygiene has proved effective at protecting health, but an overzealous approach to cleanliness may have had unexpected results. Those who support the hygiene hypothesis believe that the human body adapted early on in evolution to bacteria, viruses, and other pathogens and began using them to "train" the immune system.
"They are the police force that keeps the immune system from becoming trigger-happy," Dr. Rook says. "Basically, the immune system is now attacking things it shouldn't be attacking."
Illnesses and conditions that have been linked to the hygiene hypothesis include:
Asthma and allergies
Mitchell H. Grayson, M.D., at the Medical College of Wisconsin, says the hygiene hypothesis has been most strongly linked to an increase in allergic diseases and asthma.
Bacteria in the environment teach an immune response to allergens that is more moderate and less severe. "In the absence of these bacteria, the immune system is thought to become more prone to allergic disease," Dr. Grayson says.
Benefits of good hygiene
Moderation seems to be the prudent approach to the situation. Abandoning good hygiene could cause a resurgence of public health diseases like dysentery or cholera.
"Public health and sanitation [have] been the single greatest improvement in our life expectancy," Dr. Grayson says. "I would not recommend living less cleanly."
Dr. Rook agrees. "We need to figure out how to replace what is good from the microbiological environment while maintaining the advances of good hygiene so we can get the best of both worlds."
Always talk with your health care provider to find out more information.
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Importance of Clean Hands
More than half of foodborne illness outbreaks are caused by unwashed or poorly washed hands, says the American Society for Microbiology. Outbreaks of hepatitis A in children in day-care centers, for instance, have been directly connected to a lack of hand-washing after changing diapers or using the bathroom.
Other pathogens such as E. coli, Shigella, and Norwalk virus, have also been spread by lack of hand washing. You can prevent the spread of other conditions such as respiratory infections, impetigo, and conjunctivitis (pinkeye) by washing hands with soap and water.
Children often know when, why, and how to wash their hands, but they forget to. They will wash their hands if the dirt is obvious - like mud or finger paint. They may not think about less obvious dirt and germs.
Tell your children to wash their hands before a meal, after using the bathroom, after playing, and after touching or petting pets or other animals. Show them how to do it, over and over. Don't get frustrated: It takes a while for the habit to become second nature.
Always talk with your health care provider to find out more information
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