Are We Helping or Harming Children’s Immunity?

Jun 06, 2019

When it comes to children, it’s a popular belief, that one can never be too careful. From making sure they wash their hands often, to keeping them away from soil, parents and schools, often reinforce the importance of being clean. With the advent of hand sanitizers and advanced cleaning products, cleanliness has become the mantra of everyday life, ensuring that children are brought up in the cleanest environment, safe in the comforts of a germ free world. In an idealistic world, this practice of cleanliness at every step and place, would probably earn parents and schools extra brownie points, but science has a much different opinion, that questions our over enthusiasm when it comes to raising our children in the cleanest environment.

A Little Dirt and Dust, Is Not Just Harmless, But a Must

Adults often ask children to avoid playing in the mud, not to jump in puddles, or keep away from places and things that aren’t clean. However, protecting children from dirt and dust, and the supposed danger of the outside world, does not help them, but instead, cause more damage.

As children grow up, their immune system learns to grow with them. The conditions they are exposed to during the growing years, could well be detriments of how strong their immunity gets. Although they are far more sensitive to infections than adults, with regular and reasonable exposure, their immune system learns which antigens (toxic or foreign substances) are harmful, and which can be ignored. When children are protected from all kinds of antigen, their immune system cannot differentiate between harmful and harmless antigens, and consider all antigens harmful. As they grow up, any antigen, including harmless ones, are mistaken as dangerous toxic entry in the body, reacting in extreme coping functions that result in conditions such as allergies, asthma and auto immune diseases. In short, children’s immune system needs a certain level of exposure to dirt and dust, to get stronger. If a child is always safe guarded from dust and dirt, with surroundings that are spick and span all the time, his immunity is bound to be over-sensitive, reacting at the slightest deemed danger.

Dr. Geetha, a Pediatrician from Hyderabad explains:

“We humans live in an environment abundant in microorganisms, and cannot exist as species, without highly effective mechanism of host defence. Our immunity is our defence. We have two types of immunity - innate, and adaptive. The former is present since birth, and the latter is learned as we grow, through our exposure to various microorganisms, to which our body produces antibodies. Without such exposure to common microorganisms, our immune response cannot be heightened. It is important for the body to be exposed to important threats, especially when younger. When children are exposed to normal environment, their immunity development is stronger. However, too much of cleanliness and hygiene, with no proper exposure to the environment, makes growing children’s immunity weaker, and compromises their ability to fight infections.”

A Clean School and House May Protect Children from Bacteria, but Expose Them to Things Far Worse

Advertisements are quick to convince us that clean environments free of 99.9% of bacteria is the need of the hour. However, cleaning products don’t just limit children’s exposure to necessary antigens, but also introduces them to harmful chemicals. Most cleaning products contain harmful ingredients such as phthalates, triclosan, ammonia, sodium hydroxide, butoxyethanol, among several others, that are dangerous when inhaled on a regular basis. When cleaning products with these ingredients are used in school and at home, where they spend the most time, children’s skin absorbs chemicals that are then ingested by the organs. Toxic ingredients found in cleaning products are known to be carcinogenic, cause liver damage, create hormonal imbalance, and also promote the growth of drug resistance bacteria.

Killing the Good with the Bad

Several microbes live in and on the body, and not all of them are harmful. In fact, some are essential to perform bodily functions, and also protect against infections. Constant use of cleaning and anti-bacterial products such as sanitizers end up harming the good bacteria present in the body and immune system. The absence of such good bacteria lead to diseases and complications. Studies find a direct relationship between the rise in disorders such as diabetes, allergies and asthma, with the depletion of certain microbes. Our quest for a sparkling clean surrounding, is ending up killing good microbes, while making the bad ones resistant to chemicals.

So, What Should Parents and Schools Do Instead?

While extreme limitations on children’s exposure to dust and dirt is not advisable, the opposite of it is equally harmful. It’s important for schools and parents to make balanced and informed judgements, when deciding how much is too much. Let children get some exposure to sunlight, play outdoors, get dirty. Don’t get paranoid when you see them touching harmless animals. Help them build habits and hobbies that are connected to nature. At school, let students try their hand at outdoor games in the school playground often, encourage games and interaction between children. Raising kids in a house with a pet should not be a cause of concern, as long as the pets are well taken care of. Studies conducted on children raised in homes with pets, show the presence of a pet, makes their immunity stronger. Occasional cold and cough in children are bound to worry parents, but don’t let that be an excuse to squeeze out more sanitizers. Go easy on cleaning products, do not over expose children to anti bacterial products, and remember, stronger is not always better.

Parents and schools must take a step back and look around, before waging a war on germs. Not all bacteria are harmful, and not all cleaning products are safe. A little exposure may go a long way in developing a child’s immunity. Let children be children the old fashioned way, before bringing out the tissues or rushing to stop them from playing in the mud, cleaning up every surface with the latest cleaning product or stopping them from touching people and things.

The idea is not to let children roll in germs, but to make conscious choices when it comes to protecting them from it. It’s important to raise children in a clean environment, but just as the idiom goes, sometimes there can be, too much of a good thing.

Jiji Tharayil

Writer. Reader. Dreamer.