Are We Overprotecting Our Kids From Infection?

The hygiene hypothesis holds that our systems are primed by exposure to bacteria and allergens.

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Some physicians think that we are overprotecting our kids from infection and that, as a result, they grow up with allergies and with poor immunity. Is it a good idea to let a young child play in the dirt and get all the routine diseases?

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Over the past 20 or 30 years, many things have changed in the lives of families and children. Probably the best change has been that our children are protected from most bad infections like polio, measles, and bacterial blood infections. This is a direct result of the great advances in medicine and public health, especially antibiotics and vaccines. Other things have changed, too, like earlier enrollment in day care and, somewhat surprisingly, the increase in allergies.

Studies are showing that kids who go to day care and are exposed to colds and flu tend to have fewer allergies later on in life. Our best explanation for this is that our immune system needs to be stimulated by outside materials (foreign agents or antigens). It may be that kids whose immune systems are not "primed" so much by viruses and bacteria react more to other materials in their environment like animal dander, dust, foods, and the like. This is all just theory at this point. It is called the "hygiene hypothesis." My thought is that kids should have ample opportunity to play with other kids, and to explore the out of doors and natural environment. But that does not mean we should not protect them against viruses and bacteria. No one wants their children to be sick—particularly when we can keep them well. Sick children do not feel well, do not learn well, and share their illnesses with others. At home, in day care, and at Grandma's, it is helpful for children to learn simple measures of hygiene. Hand-washing does wonders to protect us all. I am helping with a preschool project in Chile where the absentee rate in preschools is very, very high because of colds, flus, and asthma. We have added the simple measure of having hand-washing gels in every room. The children and teachers are healthy and happy and growing up just fine. In fact, we find that they are even having fewer asthma attacks. Don't worry about using your good common sense. Let your kids play actively and then make sure they wash their hands when they come in, after they go to the bathroom, if they sneeze on their hand, and before they eat a meal.

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