The concept of cleanliness has been a topic of great debate for many years. On one side of the fence, frequent cleaning reduces the number of bacteria and viruses that cause illness. On the other side, some experts argue that our body’s immune system has to work harder when regularly exposed to pathogens and allergens, which can improve our autoimmune response against the various bugs we might encounter during our day-to-day lives. So, what does the evidence say?
In a recent study, researchers found that children who bit their nails or sucked their thumb— habits frequently discouraged by parents—were half as likely to have allergies at age 32! It’s suspected the children’s immune systems strengthened due to frequent exposure to the bacteria that were under the nails or on the hands.
This new discovery—coined the hygiene hypothesis—may explain why allergies are more common now than they were during the Victorian era—a time when hygiene was much worse.
There has been a steady rise in allergies over the past twenty years, yet no one can fully explain why. For example, in the United Kingdom, one-in-four people suffer from an allergy at some point in life, with an increase in the number each year. Though some research supports germ exposure concepts, experts stress that other VERY important factors including diet, exercise, environmental factors, antibiotic use, and a family history of allergies may also play a larger role in allergy development.
Of course, maintaining good personal and home hygiene standards is very important! Avoiding and preventing the spread of infection to others by covering your mouth when you sneeze (especially if you’re sick) or washing your hands after using the toilet are solid practices! The KEY is NOT to be obsessive about cleanliness!
The available evidence seems to support the following: