Living with Germs Has Its Upside, Don’t Overdo Cleanliness

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A four year old boy washing the dishes with his mum in the kitchen

The pandemic has made us hyper-aware of germ avoidance. But with COVID-19 waning, it’s a good time to point out that it’s possible to be overly vigilant about avoiding germs.

Yes, you can be too hygienic.

We are awash in a sea of microbes in the environment, many of which influence our health. Exposure to some germs is good for us, says UH adult and pediatric allergy and immunology specialist Samuel Friedlander, MD.

Kids raised in extremely clean environments are more likely to develop allergies, asthma and allergic skin conditions, for instance. That’s because their immune systems aren’t sufficiently primed through exposure to germs and certain infections. Doctors calls this phenomenon the “hygiene hypothesis.”

“We sometimes tend to think of bacteria and viruses as being all bad,” Dr. Friedlander. “But we have a relationship with these microorganisms that sometimes can be beneficial. We’ve found that kids who go to daycare, although it can be frustrating to get numerous viruses, are less likely to develop allergies.”

People who live on farms, such as the Amish, also are less likely to develop allergies. “It would be nice if we knew exactly what it is about that lifestyle that protects them from allergies. One day we hope to figure it out,” Dr. Friedlander says.

The common cold is another example of how exposure confers a measure of protection. Doctors right now are seeing a spike in upper respiratory viruses and sinus infections, which is likely due to a lack of exposure to viruses as people wore masks and socially distanced during the pandemic, Dr. Friedlander says.

The key is striking a balance between protecting health while not being overly vigilant about avoiding germs, he says. “With COVID-19, the stakes are a lot higher. It could be a cold or it could be death. We have to weigh the varying risk of infection and all the complications that can happen. That’s where it gets really tricky.”

In general, though, it’s wise to not be overly protected against bacteria and viruses that are around us all the time, he says. “To achieve that balance, we want kids to be outside, we want them to play in the mud, to get exercise and sunlight and be exposed to germs,” Dr. Friedlander says.

It’s important to wash one’s hands, of course, especially before eating or touching your eyes or nose. But don’t go overboard, he says.

“You don’t need to use hand sanitizer or wash your hands all the time, unless you’re in the medical field seeing patients. For the general population, it’s really not necessary.”

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