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Growing up 'dirty' might be best for your child after all

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Dirt and child allergy

Crawling around in a spotless home may not be good for your baby's health a new and contradictory study suggests. A house that is too clean just might mean more instead of less wheezing and allergies by age-3.

Bacteria, dust and pets might be good for kids after all

Johns Hopkins researchers found kids exposed to the likes of cat dander, cockroach droppings, rodents and other household bacteria were more likely to be free from allergies than infants that grew up in cleaner environments.

The finding that dirt in the home can be healthy for infants came as a surprise.

"What we found was somewhat surprising and somewhat contradictory to our original predictions," said study co-author Dr. Robert Wood, chief of the Division of Allergy and Immunology at the Johns Hopkins Children's Center in Baltimore. "It turned out to be completely opposite -- the more of those three allergens you were exposed to, the less likely you were to go on to have wheezing or allergy."

Earlier findings from the researchers showed the opposite. Kids in homes with high levels of allergens were more, not less likely to develop allergies and wheezing.

The new finding showed children in homes with higher amounts of bacteria were 41 percent less likely to wheeze and have allergy related symptoms compared to just 8 percent of kids in very clean homes.

Should you buy a cat or a mouse for your child?

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Well, not exactly because the study really isn't the final word. However, it does support the "hygiene hypothesis" that suggests using antibacterial soaps and cleaners, keeping our homes sealed tighter to save energy and less green space with dirt for kids to play in could have a detrimental effect for the developing immune system.

Past studies have shown kids growing up on farms have stronger immunity perhaps from being exposed to a wide variety of allergens early in life. There is also past evidence that dog ownership can help prevent allergy and infection in children.

The finding could be important given rising rates of asthma that affects approximately 7 million children in the United States and is one of the most common illnesses affected the pediatric population today according to the American Lung Association.

The researchers for the study tracked 467 inner city babies from Baltimore, Boston, New York and St. Louis that started in utero. The investigators followed the infants' health status. The investigation also included measuring allergen sources in the home in addition to bacteria levels in dust.

The results showed less incidence of wheezing by age-3 among children in environments containing cat and mouse dander and roach droppings.

"The combination of both -- having the allergen exposure and the bacterial exposure -- appeared to be the most protective," Wood said.

The study authors say the finding suggests there may be new ways to help prevent allergy and wheezing in kids.

The finding is not the final answer.The researchers say parents shouldn't make any decisions on adopting a cat or bringing cockroaches into the home to make kids healthier. The bottom line may be if your environment is too clean you won't stimulate your child's immune system Mahr added.

In my opinion the finding does suggest you should go rescue a cat or a dog from your local shelter - but then again I'm biased when it comes to the proven benefits of pet ownership. Letting go of the dusting and letting your infant get dirty just might mean less chance of allergy and asthma later on.

June 6, 2014,
Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology