Allergen Exposure Bears Benefits For Infants
June 10, 2014

Allergen Exposure Bears Benefits For Infants

We’re going to conduct a generational thought experiment. Imagine a six-year old boy — we’ll call him Jimmy — trouncing about with a lollipop. Jimmy gets a few good licks in before tragedy strikes. The sucker plummets to the ground, much to the chagrin of both poor Jimmy and his onlooking mother, sticking to the tile floor.

Okay. Freeze frame. What happens next?

If it were my childhood home, Jimmy would pounce on the lollipop, stick it back in his mouth, and go right back to what he was doing with nary a second thought. In some modern homes, however, it would be dear mother doing the pouncing, snagging that lollipop off the ground and condemning it to the trashcan.

Don’t get me wrong — cleanliness is important. Health and hygiene are all worthy considerations, and we all want what’s best for our children. That said, a recent study found that ye olden days of “suck it up, Buttercup” might actually be better for the little tykes in the long run … at least as far as germs and allergens are concerned.

Dr. Robert Wood, head of the Division of Allergy and Immunology at the John Hopkin’s Children’s Center, recently published article in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology that reported on various germs and allergens that may, in fact, enhance a young child’s ability to properly defend itself against allergens and germs. Our modern sensibilities may have, in fact, bitten us in the rear this time, as his researchers found that children who lived amidst allergens such as cat dander (and other less savory elements) reported markedly lower instances of wheezing than those who lived in a sterilized home (17 percent and 51 percent, respectively). While previous reports from the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology that suggest avoiding early contact with allergens can delay the onset of such allergies, Dr. Wood’s researchers have found that despite being counterintuitive, this may not actually be the case.

Researchers were surprised to discover that infants who were exposed to dirt, germs, and dander before their first birthday actually seemed to be more resistant to allergies and asthma than their cleanly-kept counterparts. This also suggested a potential reason for why children who grow up without suffering from any allergies whatsoever might begin developing symptoms as they pass on through adulthood.

Let’s remember to take these findings in stride, however. This research is not saying you should breed roaches in your home. It’s not saying that you should roll your child into a heap of filth before tucking them in for bed every night. I would be extremely surprised if any of the scientists on this study were to actively condone worsening the living conditions of a child. What it is saying, however, is perhaps we don’t need to completely flip our basket if little Jimmy manages to snag a lollipop off of the floor. There’s a big difference between “dirty” and “toxic”. The human immune system is pretty friggin’ amazing … maybe we should occasionally sit back and let it do its job.

Image Credit: Thinkstock

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