Would you let your child play in the dirt, chew on a toy used by another child, or eat food that fell on the floor?
In today's sanitized climate - where things like antibacterial soaps, lotions, portable gels, and handwipes fly off the drugstore shelves - we're more aware of germs today than ever before. After all, germs are responsible for things like colds, the flu, and other common infections.
But might some exposure to germs actually be good for your kids? According to one theory that's spreading like bacteria, the answer is yes.
Called the "hygiene hypothesis," the theory suggests that the growing rate of asthma and allergies in younger populations is the result of being too clean. That's right - too clean.
According to the theory, the presence of some germs allows babies' and children's immune systems to develop properly. Without enough exposure to germs, the immune system becomes overly sensitive to the irritants that can cause asthma and allergies.
As well, the overuse of antibacterial products - from the soaps and gels you can buy off the shelf to antibiotics for throat infections and other ailments - can result in stronger germs that are resistant to the effects of antibiotics. These germs, sometimes referred to as "superbugs," evolve to withstand the effects of antibiotics, and can even become strong enough to resist the effects of stronger antibiotics.
While the verdict is still out on the hygiene hypothesis, there are things you can do to limit your child's exposure to germs while still allowing their immune system to develop - and they don't involve letting your kid eat dirt.
- Talk to your doctor: Some children, such as those with a compromised immune system, may be more at risk for infections than others and may require additional precautions.
- Teach your children proper hand-washing techniques: You don't need antibacterial products to kill most of the germs on your hands - regular soap and water, and good technique can do the trick. Teach your children to always use warm soapy water, lather up well, and wash thoroughly (including between fingers and the backs of their hands) for 10 to 15 seconds.
- Understand when and how to use antibiotics: Antibiotics are only effective against bacterial infections, such as strep throat, not viruses, such as colds or the flu. While you may not feel your trip to the doctor's office was worth your time if you don't come away with a prescription for an antibiotic, you may not need one. Talk to your child's doctor about what kind of infection they have, and if your child is prescribed antibiotics, make sure your child takes them for the full course - not just until your child starts to feel better.
Written and reviewed by the MediResource Clinical Team