Schwab: “Hygiene hypothesis” derails germ obsession

As our knowledge of bacteria and germs expands, the methods of decimating these microscopic organisms has followed suit. Automatic hand sanitizer dispensers can be found everywhere on campus, from the hallways of the College Union to the rooms of Newton Lecture Hall.

While practicing cleanly lifestyles and using antiseptics to protect ourselves from bacteria – and subsequently infections – seems to be highly successful, many believe that we may be putting ourselves in harm’s way. The belief that we are protecting ourselves may be tempting, but it is crucial to not get carried away.

The hygiene hypothesis is a theory circulating the scientific field, explaining certain trends in disease and allergies in the modern, industrialized world. It offers the idea that exposure to certain microbes and bacteria at the young, postnatal stage helps prime the immune system to protect us later in life.

Whether or not the hygiene hypothesis is completely factual or not, society has clearly become so scared of disease and infection that we abuse antiseptics and obsess over cleanliness.

This hypothesis has been proposed to explain the abnormally high incidence of asthma in the developed world as well as why many of us suffer from a wide variety of allergies. Both asthma and allergies are the result of our immune system being hypersensitive and thus providing the body with an inappropriate immunological response.

While asthma is manageable with certain medications and proper education, immune hypersensitivity can be damaging and even fatal. Some individuals are so allergic to certain things, such as bee stings, that the immune system causes the body to go into anaphylactic shock, which can be fatal without immediate intervention.

It seems logical to suggest that most people would want to prevent immune hypersensitivity and understand why some suffer from it while others don’t. Epidemiological evidence is beginning to pile up that says children living in overly sterile and clean environments are more likely to develop asthma and various allergies.

The increasingly industrialized world has helped lower our contact with the microbes thought to help jump-start our immune systems. It is not simply technological innovations that lower the level of contact, however.

It appears that the increased understanding of disease – from how a disease is spread to what needs to be done to prevent it – has helped craft a society that is petrified of becoming sick, even to relatively harmless pathogens.

To help alleviate this fear of infection and illness, many people opt to essentially drench themselves in antiseptics, like Purell hand sanitizer, at all times. On top of that, many parents will prevent children from being exposed to harmless objects, or even to cats and dogs.

There is evidence to suggest that the habitual use of antiseptics and germ-killing substances is actually causing an increase in bacterial resistance to drugs and antibiotics. Over time the germs and bacteria that antibiotics are meant to kill have adapted. People with resistant strains of pathogens are often sick longer, suffer more and have larger hospital bills. A wide range of diseases has developed known resistance to drugs, from tuberculosis to influenza to malaria.

While it is important to practice proper hygiene habits and protect ourselves from infection, it is equally imperative that we don’t become overly neurotic. If the hygiene hypothesis proves to be even remotely accurate, compulsive cleanliness will do more harm than good. While it is tempting to become overly cautious when dealing with something potentially fatal, using antiseptics in moderation is the best path toward protection and an appropriately responsive immune system.