This weeks New England Journal of Medicine adds an important addition to a very large body of evidence that exposure to more germs in childhood can actually dramatically decrease the chance of developing asthma.
The original observation from a large number of studies from around the world is that kids growing up on farms have a much smaller chance of developing asthma than kids growing up in cities.
What is becoming clear is that a large part of the reason has to do with exposure to a broad range of bacteria, and fungi (molds and yeasts). The more a child is exposed to bacteria and fungi, the less chance they have of developing asthma.
The benefit of exposure to bacteria and fungi is large, it can drop the chance of developing asthma by 50%!
We have no actual recommendations regarding exposing our kids to bacteria and fungi. But one thing is now much clearer. The whole germ phobia phenomenon is now clearly pointing in the wrong direction. In fact, it may be that the overall approach of trying to keep surfaces free of germs has caused a tremendous surge in a real illness, asthma.
Bacteria and fungi are a radically different problem than viruses. Viruses never just hang around, they can only cause illness. But bacteria and fungi are an important, constant, valuable part of our lives. No human alive has ever spent a moment of their life entirely coated by bacteria and fungi. The whole planet is covered by bacteria and fungi. If we could somehow rid ourselves of them altogether, it is very likely that many of our systems would fail, including our skin, gut, and lungs. We would likely not be able survive well, or at all, in a bacteria free world.
Infections from bacteria almost always are due to some unusual opportunity our body gives them- a cut, a viral infection. But for almost our entire lives, bacteria help us live and do not infect us.
Now we know that in our craze to banish these helpful partners of life, we have possibly and inadvertently caused a raging epidemic of asthma.
Dr. Arthur Lavin
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