March 1, 2004 -- Using antibacterial products in your home may not necessarily keep your family free of runny noses, cough, or other common symptoms of infectious diseases.
A new study shows that households that used antibacterial products for hand washing, cleaning, and laundry reported about the same number of infections as those that used regular cleaning products.
Researchers say the number of household cleaning products containing antibacterial ingredients has risen dramatically in recent years, and about 75% of liquid and 29% of bar soaps available in the U.S. consumer market contain antibacterial ingredients.
Antibacterial products are made to kill bacteria that commonly cause many different types of infectious illnesses. But they do not protect against viruses, which are also responsible for many infectious diseases.
Although manufacturers claim that these products offer health benefits, there is little evidence that these products fight infectious diseases in the home.
Examining Antibacterial Products at Home
In the study, published in the current issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine, researchers randomly assigned 238 households in an inner-city neighborhood of Manhattan to use either antibacterial or regular products for general cleaning, laundry, and hand washing for one year. All of the antibacterial products were commercially available, provided free of charge, and the packaging was blinded.
Each of the households had at least one preschool-age child living in the home, and researchers called the households each week to get information on cleaning practices and the number of common infectious disease symptoms. The symptoms they asked about included fever, sore throat, runny nose, cough, vomiting, diarrhea, skin rashes, and red eyes in any family member.
The study showed that an average of about 33% of the households had one or more members with infectious disease symptoms each month. The most commonly reported symptoms were runny nose and cough.
But when the researchers compared the number of months that one or more family members had infectious disease symptoms, they found no differences between households that used antibacterial products and those that did not. There were no significant differences in either the presence or number of symptoms reported.
Researchers say the results show that antibacterial products do not reduce the risk of infection in households that consist of essentially healthy people. But the study did not look at whether the use of antibacterial products reduced the symptoms of bacterial infections alone in the home or whether these products offered any usefulness in homes where a family member was immunosuppressed.
Weighing Risks and Benefits of Antibacterials
In an editorial that accompanies the study, J. Todd Weber, MD, and James M. Hughes, MD, of the National Center for Infectious Diseases at the CDC, say several reasons may help explain the study's findings. For example, the antibacterial ingredients may not affect the infectious agents responsible for the symptoms studied, or the products may not have been used properly.
But they say it is also possible that the greatest risk for infection lies outside the home. Previous studies have shown that improved hygiene can reduce disease transmission in nonhome settings, such as day care centers, schools, military training camps, and correctional facilities.
"The decision to use products containing antibacterial ingredients to prevent disease transmission rest on whether there are proven benefits in a specific setting (for example, home or institutional) and whether there are risks," they write. "Among the risks associated with antibacterial-containing products is the possible link between resistance to antibacterial ingredients and the development of antimicrobial resistance."
The editorialists say more studies are needed to examine these risks in worsening an already growing problem of antibacterial and antiviral resistance, which makes treating once treatable diseases more difficult.
In a statement released in response to the study, the Soap and Detergent Association and the Cosmetic, Toiletry, and Fragrance Association say that these findings are not surprising.
"None of the antibacterial products were designed, formulated, or claimed to be effective against viruses," they say.
"Household disinfectants and antibacterial household cleaning products -- depending on their active ingredients, specific formulation, and use instructions -- are designed to kill a wide variety of microorganisms that can live on inanimate surfaces, such as bacteria like Salmonella and E. coli, which cause intestinal illness, and Staphylococcus, which causes skin infections."