When it comes to living a clean lifestyle, it's important to recognize that not all germs are created equal, according to a study presented at the Excellence in Paediatrics conference in Madrid in November 2012. The researchers—who are affiliated with the International Scientific Forum on Home Hygiene—explain the difference. There are "good" germs, like microbes found in playground dirt that have existed in the environment for centuries. Being exposed to these organisms can regulate the immune system and help prevent it from reacting to harmless triggers. On the other hand,  "bad" germs—those that linger on doorknobs and countertops, for example—cause illness and put kids at unnecessary health risks.

Ruchi Gupta, MD, MPH, associate professor of pediatrics and director of the Program for Maternal and Child Health at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine says the trick to keeping children healthy lies in finding a balance between getting more of those "good" germs, and avoiding the "bad" ones. Gupta is also attending physician at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital, and author of The Food Allergy Experience.

Revising the Hygiene Theory and Childhood Allergies
Gupta points out her recent research efforts on children and allergies have discovered that 1 in 13 young people (or 8 percent) suffer from food allergies-her findings were published in Pediatrics (2011), the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics. While experts don't know what exactly is causing the rise in allergies, our increasingly hygienic lifestyles may play a role. According to Gupta, some of the factors research points to include: more C-sections, which eliminate the newborn's exposure to germs in the birthing process; over-treating infants with antibiotics for viral infections; children spending more time indoors than in the past, and the over-use of antibacterial hand sanitizers.

"We try to keep kids healthy and that's fine, but we don't want to carry it too far and live in a bubble," Gupta explains. Her solution is simple: "Let children be children." Kids should be allowed-and encouraged—to play outside and get dirty. It's also important for children to learn how to thoroughly wash their hands with soap and water. When the flu or other illness is spreading around at school, that's the time for parents to ramp up their home hygiene routine, according to the pediatrician.

Coping With Childhood Allergies
For children who already have food or environmental allergies, Gupta suggests talking with your pediatrician and making sure you have an effective treatment plan in place that works for your little one's specific situation. She also recommends visiting her website at www.foodallergyexperience.com, which provides the highlights of her research on allergies and asthma, and www.foodallergy.org, which offers user-friendly tips for parents to help keep their children safe.

Ruchi Gupta, MD, MPH, reviewed this article.

Interview with Gupta, Ruchi MD MPH, associate professor of pediatrics and director of the Program for Maternal, Child Health at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine, attending physician at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital, and author The Food Allergy Experience (Dec. 31 2012). http://www.foodallergyexperience.com/

Gupta, Ruchi et al. "The Prevalence, Severity, and Distribution of Childhood Food Allergy in the United States". Pediatrics Published online June 2011. Web. 2 Jan. 2012. http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2011/06/16/peds.2011-0204.abstract

Science 2.0. "Hygiene Hypothesis Debunked? Allergies Not Related to Being Too Clean" Web. 30 November 2012. www.science20.com/news_articles/hygiene_hypothesis_debunked_allergies_not_related_being_too_clean-97677