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The hygiene hypothesis: too clean during COVID?

Experts believe the lack of exposure to germs may leave children at higher risk for developing asthma, allergies, and other allergic conditions.

ORLANDO, Fla. — It’s been called the “hygiene hypothesis” – all the scrubbing and wiping we do to keep germs at bay may instead interrupt the body’s natural defense systems. The research continues to look for a definitive link between the increase in allergies and the increase in anti-bacterial cleaning. But experts believe the lack of exposure to germs may leave children at higher risk for developing asthma, allergies, and other allergic conditions.

Ever since the start of the COVID pandemic Americans have been more focused on cleanliness. There's greater usage of anti-bacterial soap for our hands and antimicrobial cleanser for surfaces. Americans certainly upped their germ-cleansing game. But is there such a thing as too clean?

As pediatric allergist at Nemours Children’s Hospital, Stephen Dinetz, MD, explained, “What we're seeing, right now, is definitely an uptick in both food and environmental allergies.”

“The hygiene hypothesis is a theory that with cleaner environments and antibacterial soaps, we are not getting exposed to the appropriate levels of allergens in the environment,” he added.

That means, especially for kids, their systems don’t have a chance to fight germs and build immunity. But is there a link between anti-bacterial cleaning, especially during COVID, and kids’ desensitization to germs and allergens?

“I definitely think it’s a valid concern,” Dr. Dinetz answered.

For now, Dr. Dinetz tells parents to let kids be kids and not allow a fear of germs to keep them from playing and interacting with others.

In addition to research in the U.S., Canadian researchers are studying the impact of the hygiene hypothesis during COVID on the human microbiome – the micro-organisms that live on the skin and in the gut – to determine if a decrease in the microbiome played a part in COVID infection. According to the CDC, the rate of food allergies has increased by 50 percent since 1997. Environmental allergies have been harder to track.

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