Kids and Dirt: Surprising Facts

The solution to some childhood conditions like asthma and allergies could be found in unexpected places.
Doctors say it’s okay for children to get dirty on the ball field.

In an era of hand sanitizers on demand and antibacterial soap at every turn, many physicians are promoting a shift in personal hygiene that might surprise you—especially when it comes to kids.

“A little dirt isn’t going to hurt you,” says Tracy Zivin-Tutela, M.D., who specializes in infectious disease at Saint Peter’s University Hospital. “In fact, we know that over-sterilizing and over-cleaning everything might actually be harmful in the long run, especially for children during their first year of life.”

The medical community thinks that early exposure to germs decreases the number of inflammatory cells in the lungs and colon, she says. “So lack of exposure could affect someone into adulthood, since inflammation plays a role in Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, asthma and allergies.”

Instead of avoiding all germs all the time, she says, exposure to everyday germs is essential for normal development of the immune system. “Just like babies need stimulation to develop their brains and muscles, contact with everyday germs actually strengthens their young immune systems.”

An otherwise healthy child exposed to certain germs might come down with a cough, upset stomach or even a cold, for example. “But that exposure allows their immune system to learn to adapt and regulate itself,” she says. “So the next time he’s exposed, he can take care of it on his own.”

Dirt and babies

The timing of exposure is also important. Though it seems counterintuitive, research shows that the younger the child, the better. “Children exposed before their first birthday get the most protective effects,” Dr. Zivin-Tutela says.

Research of people around the globe supports these ideas. In one study, more than 40 percent of children who had no allergies or wheezing grew up in homes rich with allergens and bacteria. On the other hand, among children who did have these symptoms, more than 90 percent had “cleaner” homes—with much less exposure to these things in the first year of life.

Research of children who grow up on farms—and are exposed to microorganisms in the soil—also shows they are less likely to have asthma and allergies. Likewise, city-dwelling infants exposed to high levels of pollution and allergens actually seem to benefit from it.

When to clean, and how?

“We think we’re protecting children from illness by keeping them so clean, but we might be depriving them of the opportunity to develop stronger immunity,” Dr. Zivin-Tutela says.

Not only is a little dirt on a kid’s hands not a big deal, it can actually be helpful, says Tracy Zivin-Tutela, M.D., who specializes in infectious disease at Saint Peter’s University Hospital. She’s also part of The Wellness Project, a locally based group of physicians and others in the community who promote ways to make small changes that improve health and wellness. To help parents find the balance between the benefits and risks of dirt, she offers these guidelines:

In the bathroom, the dirtiest spot isn’t the commode. “It’s the floor and door handles,” she says.

In the backyard sandbox, let them play, she says. But keep the box covered so it doesn’t become a cat’s litter box.

On the ballfield or gym floor, it’s okay to get dirty. “That’s the kind of dirt that’s probably best for them,” she says.

When someone is sick or you’re getting ready to eat, do wash your hands.

If your child has an illness, talk to your doctor about the best precautions against exposure.

And when you clean off dirt and germs, antibacterial wipes aren’t usually necessary. “Hot, soapy water for 20 seconds will usually take care of anything dangerous,” Dr. Zivin-Tutela says.

To find out more about the Pediatric Infectious Disease Program at the Children's Hospital at Saint Peter's University Hospital, Please call 732.565.5437 or go to SAINTPETERSHCS.COM. To share this article with a friend or to recommend it on your Facebook page, visit CENTRALJERSEYHEALTHANDLIFE.COM.

Categories: Central Jersey Health & Life