The final touches of fall are upon us, bringing light dustings of snow, heaving helpings of wind and an array of runny noses spreading faster than the countdown until finals. While society’s understanding of germs and the immune system has grown exponentially in the past century, many misconceptions exist about how microbes affect our health and what exactly we should be doing about them. Like most things in life, our actions against germs should be a balancing act, protecting ourselves and others from dangerous diseases but also allowing for the growth of microbes that can directly and indirectly improve our health.
Bacteria are some of the most colloquially misunderstood microorganisms in current society. We are told they are dangerous superbugs fighting (and winning) against a front of antibiotics, but other articles and speakers tote the virtues of the gut microbiome and the bacteria that comprise it. Ultimately, it is important to recognize that bacteria form an entire taxonomic domain of microorganisms that are incredibly diverse. Many pose no harm to human health, and others can perform valuable functions such as breaking down carbohydrates and toxins in the gut.
While it is true that some species of bacteria pose significant threats to human health, recklessly cleansing one’s environment of all bacterial species can cause more damage than good. Harmless bacteria can protect against dangerous pathogens simply by taking up space, be it in the body or in one’s home. Antibiotics not only destroy harmful bacteria but also kill the bacteria lining one’s intestine. Data from a 2016 study indicate that exposure to antibiotics in infancy can change the gut microbiome and weaken the immune system for years to come, and other studies have linked the use of antibiotics in children to a higher lifetime risk of inflammatory bowel disease, asthma and obesity. In addition, aggressive cleaning can remove bacteria but allow for other microbes such as fungi to take their place. A study led by Laura-Isobel McCall, a biochemist at the University of Oklahoma, found that in Brazil and Peru, urban homes had higher fungal diversity than rural homes that were considered to follow poorer hygiene. Some of the fungi discovered, such as those found in the Malassezia genus, have caused infections in hospitals in other parts of the world, indicating that the link between cleanliness against bacteria and increase in fungal diversity is universal.
Scientists also believe that controlled exposure to microorganisms such as bacteria actually strengthens one’s immune system. In the late 1980s, Dr. David P. Strachan, a professor of epidemiology, introduced the concept of the hygiene hypothesis, stating that a lack of exposure to germs in one’s childhood can increase disease susceptibility later in life. In the late 1990s, Dr. Erika von Mutius compared rates of childhood allergies and asthma in East Germany and West Germany, which was considered to be cleaner and more hygienic than its counterpart. She found that the children in East Germany actually had lower rates of asthma and fewer allergies. Researchers believe that exposure to germs not only allows one to create the antibodies needed to fight these and similar microorganisms but also prevents the immune system from reacting to harmless substances such as pollen and dust, which causes the body to develop allergies. This stems from the concept that human immune systems evolved to respond to a certain level of cleanliness, and as modern society has evolved into cleaner habits, the human body has had difficulty keeping up.
Of course, it is important to remain diligent against harmful pathogens that can cause serious illnesses such as the flu, food poisoning and a host of gastrointestinal diseases. The Royal Society of Public Health in the UK calls for “targeted hygiene,” allowing for children to play outside and interact with pets but wash their hands before eating and after going to the bathroom. It is also important to clean eating and cooking utensils after use so as to prevent food poisoning and to wash one’s hands after sneezing, coughing or nose-blowing. Ultimately, make sure to protect yourself when it counts, but maybe let your hands get dirty every once in a while or let your dog lick your face. Your body is genetically programmed to take it.
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Katherine Lee is a staff columnist for The Daily Campus. She can be reached at email@example.com.