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How Clean Should We Be?

By Mary Jo DiLonardo
WebMD Feature

Your baby drops a cracker on the floor. Does the 5-second rule apply, or do you quickly throw it away?

Or could those germs actually be good for him? Well, kind of.

There's a belief that says exposing people -- especially babies and young children -- to different kinds of germs early in life can keep them from developing illnesses like asthma, allergies, and other diseases that affect the immune system. The theory, called the “hygiene hypothesis,” is that our bodies need "practice" fighting germs.

Looks like that message has gotten through. In a survey by the Hygiene Council, 77% of moms with kids under 5 thought their children should be exposed to germs to help build stronger immune systems. The Hygiene Council, a group of health experts focused on hygiene, is funded by an educational grant from Reckitt Benckiser, a WebMD sponsor.

"In the 20th century we started changing the way we live. We live in very clean boxes. Water is immaculate. Food is nearly sterile. Exposure to bacteria and soil is less common," says Joel Weinstock, MD, chief of gastroenterology and hepatology at Tufts Medical Center and professor at Tufts University.  But being super clean may not be good for growing immune systems.

“Certain diseases that were essentially unknown in the 18th century and earlier are becoming common now." But we’re also not dying from cholera and the plague. So does this mean we can stop washing our hands and can eat food off the floor? Not so fast.

"We're not encouraging kids to go out and eat dirt or forgo vaccinations,” says Kathleen Barnes, PhD. “But there's probably something to be said for not sheltering children from exposure to routine (germs) during childhood and the sort of overboard way we go."

But that doesn't mean you should throw cleanliness to the wind. According to the "old friends theory," which takes the hygiene hypothesis further, it's true that exposure to some friendly germs helps us. But we still have to limit being around germs that cause serious illnesses. So where should we draw the line?

What You Can Stop Worrying About

Pets

Barnes cites studies that show that kids who grow up around pets are less likely to get asthma. Kids in day care who are exposed to kids with colds and other germs are less likely to end up with allergies, asthma, and other health problems.

Sterilizing Everything

You can probably lay off all the antibacterial soaps and cleansers. Even the FDA is skeptical. They are asking antibacterial soap makers to prove that the products are more effective than regular soap. There are also questions about the safety of some of the ingredients, so there may be more risks than benefits. "The vast amount of types of bacteria and viruses and fungi that we see in everyday life don’t hurt us at all. They're just there," says Weinstock “Only a handful” are likely to make you sick, he says.

To get rid of germs when washing your hands, encourage your kids to lather up for as long as it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” twice.

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