The surprising results of a new study from Northwestern University might help some germ-phobic parents relax a little. The study is the first to look at how exposure to germs in childhood affects the immune system and the development of inflammatory diseases in adulthood.
The researchers found that children raised in ultra-clean, ultra-hygienic environments early in life appear to have higher levels of inflammation as an adult, which in turn increases the risk for a wide range of diseases. In fact, exposure to infectious microbes early in life may actually protect individuals from diseases that can lead to death in adulthood. The research suggests that children’s immune systems might require exposure to common, everyday germs to guide their development.
It’s still a good idea for parents to teach children to practice good hygiene, but it’s probably not necessary—or even wise—to keep our kids slathered in antibacterial gels, lotions, and hand sanitizers. Their developing immune systems need to be challenged in childhood to be strong during adulthood.