The Hygiene Hypothesis: Can We Be Too Clean?
Many parents and physicians are observing a worrying trend: more and more children are suffering from food allergies, eczema, asthma, hay fever and other allergic maladies. Why are allergies becoming more frequent when most other childhood disorders are decreasing and our medical treatment options keep improving?
The “hygiene hypothesis” claims that lack of stimulation of our immune systems with bacteria or viruses could lead to higher rates of allergies and asthma. While this approach can not completely explain the rise in allergic and autoimmune diseases, it does offer some explanation for the shocking increases.
To understand the hygiene hypothesis, it is important to know how allergies develop. Allergies are caused by unusual immune responses to things we usually encounter and tolerate without problems, such as animal dander, dust or pollen.
The main function of the immune system is to defend us from dangerous bacteria and viruses. When your child comes in contact with these pathogens, the immune system goes to work fighting them off. But in allergic people, the immune system attacks harmless substances.
The first time your child comes into contact with the allergen, the body’s immune system sends out signals to attack the foreign invader. Often, there is no allergic reaction following the first exposure, but the body becomes “sensitized.” The next time the allergen is encountered, the body responds fast – usually within 30 minutes – and the reaction can be mild or severe.
Professor David Strachan developed the hygiene hypothesis in 1989 while trying to explain the increase in allergic diseases since industrialization, and the higher incidence of allergic diseases in more developed countries. He was the first to publish an articledescribing his observation that allergic diseases, such as hay fever and eczema, were less common in children who came from larger families. He concluded that those children may be exposed to more diseases, bacteria and infections through contact with their many siblings, helping to build their immune systems. Children without siblings might not receive the same exposure.
Reprinted with the permission of the American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology. © 1996-2008 American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology. All Rights Reserved.
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