Being too clean can be harmful for your child's developing immune system

You asked: Is being ‘too clean’ harming my kids?

A child’s immune system is brand new; it needs to learn
January 31, 2018

If you’ve ever gotten a brand-new car, you cherish it. You park it far away from other cars in the lot, and if anybody comes near it, your panic levels shoot upwards. You try to keep that new-car smell for as long as possible and you may even vacuum the interior every once in a while.

Your child’s immune system is similar to a brand-new car, but unlike your new vehicle, it could actually benefit from playing in the mud. “Being too clean, especially in early life, is largely unhealthy,” said Robert Alaniz, PhD, professor at the Texas A&M College of Medicine.

Early immune systems

 In our early years, our immune systems are a blank canvas. There is no color, and once you add something, it can’t be undone. However, a blank canvas is not art, and a blank immune system isn’t protective.

“When our immune systems are young, they learn what antigens should be ignored and what are truly harmful,” Alaniz said. “If they don’t learn these lessons early on about what to ignore or what to attack, our more mature immune systems will respond aggressively to particles in the environment that are rather innocuous.”

Alaniz noted that children are extra sensitive to infections, but as their immune systems build, they will learn to deal with the antigen easily. Also, if children aren’t exposed to these pathogens until later on, their mature immune systems can overreact, and this can lead to a series of health problems.

Complications from cleanliness

If mature immune systems react aggressively to common antigens, what does that mean for your health? Well, it could lead to inflammation and a rise in other harmful conditions, such as asthma, allergies and autoimmune diseases.

“Being too clean is similar to overusing antibiotics that kill the good bacteria and change the immune system,” Alaniz said. “Your body and immune system need to learn about the environment early on so it can respond accordingly later.”

This is also the same mindset when forming immunities. Although we don’t want people to experience the flu or other preventable viruses out in the environment, we want our bodies to believe that they have. “Immunizations trick a response in our immune system,” Alaniz said. “They introduce the body to a weakened or killed organism that produces immunity in the body against the specific organism.” A similar thing occurs when our immune systems encounter small amounts of a pathogen when we are young.

The right amount of clean 

While being too clean can lead to a few health problems, it’s obvious that the polar opposite is true. Living in a pigpen can introduce another wide variety of pathogens that can cause infections in children and adults. So, what’s the right amount of clean or dirty that people should get? Well, there’s no easy answer.

“Humans are built to handle exposure to the outside world, and kids have always put random objects in their mouth—it’s not a problem,” Alaniz said. “Parents should teach their kids proper hygiene, but shouldn’t keep them in a bubble or keep them from playing in a playground with other kids.”

Finding the middle ground between unhygienic and putting children in a bubble is difficult, but there are sensible places to start.

“We, as a society, need to clean when it’s necessary and be sensible with our cleanliness,” Alaniz said. “Children should learn how to properly wash their hands, and people in the food or health care industry should practice good hygiene, but we don’t want to put our immune systems in bubbles.”

— Dominic Hernandez

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