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Purging Germs: Health Booster or Bad Idea?

Most of the germs lurking about our environment and that live on our bodies are not only harmless; they've been with us for millennia, says Martin Blaser, MD, professor of internal medicine at New York University. 

As human behavior has changed over the past half century, many microbes, such as some that live in the gut, are disappearing.

"These perform important physiological functions but because of modern life they are changing and some are disappearing," Blaser says. "Those disappearances have consequences -- some good, some bad."

When we overly sanitize infants' environments to protect them from illness, we may instead be depriving them the opportunity to build a strong immune system.

In addition to overzealous hygiene campaigns that may prevent kids from exposure to natural microorganisms that are good for them, there are other practices -- like the overuse of antibiotics -- that threaten to make us less healthy, not more. 

Still, there is the possibility of going too far in the other direction. Many proponents of the hygiene hypothesis say that the germs in the dirt are good for you.

"It's an interesting idea," Blaser says, "but my view is those germs are irrelevant to us. Those microbes in dirt are adapted to dirt; they are not adapted to the human body." 

So What's a Parent to Do?

As with most things in life, keeping your kids healthy is a matter of finding balance.

Blaser highly recommends that parents and physicians carefully consider whether antibiotics should be used for all episodes of fever. Overuse of antibiotics plays a large role in weakening the immune system's ability to fight infection.

And when it comes to keeping your kids' environment germ free, McDade says, "I'd like to see a recalibration toward common sense. You don't have to wash or sanitize everything."

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