Most of us have heard about the ‘hygiene hypothesis’, whether it be the scientific version or a home-spun theory that makes us feel better when we run out of time to clean the kitchen floor.
In essence, the theory is that the abundance of antibacterial domestic and personal cleaning products in use these days means that our children are not encountering enough germs to allow the development of their immune systems, leading to increased rates of childhood allergies and asthma.
Experts are divided on whether improvements in hygiene in the Western world are responsible for seemingly increasing rates of asthma and allergies in children, or whether any increases in incidence are due simply to increased awareness, more effective testing and diagnosis, and increased reporting of cases.
While it is generally agreed among the experts that exposure to some germs is important for a developing immune system, we should not be complacent when it comes to more dangerous pathogens that can lead to potentially life-threatening diseases.
The UK’s Hygiene Council reminds us that a baby’s immune system is not fully developed for several months.
The Hygiene Council recommends that we use antibacterial products to clean ‘hygiene hotspots’ around the home, such as changing mats, toys, bathrooms and kitchens, and any surfaces that are regularly touched by hands such as door handles, light switches, soap pumps, remote controls and telephones.
By taking simple actions such as regular hand washing, disinfecting surfaces, practicing good food hygiene and washing laundry at 60 degrees or using laundry disinfectant at lower temperatures, we can help to break the chain of transmission of potentially harmful germs such as E. coli and the flu virus.
In short, it seems that while there is a case for a bit of dirt being good for the immune system, it’s also important to remember that by being vigilant about personal hygiene, we can play a major role in limiting the spread of some pretty unpleasant diseases.