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Dirt and Dust Arm You Against Allergies

Cleanliness, antibiotics may cheat developing immune system, study says

FRIDAY, Aug. 9, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- Allergic disorders such as asthma, hay fever and eczema are on the rise in industrialized nations, and British researchers are saying that could be because children's immune systems aren't challenged enough.

In research published in the August issue of Biologist, scientists from Royal Free and University College Medical School in London found those adults who were given antibiotics when they were children were more likely to suffer from allergic disease. They also discovered you are less likely to be allergic if you:

  • Had older siblings, especially brothers
  • Rarely washed your hands or face as a child
  • Lived in a home with bacteria-laden dust
  • Were brought up on a farm with animals
  • Had a dog
  • Had a childhood infection that was transmitted by fecal to oral contamination
  • Grew up in Communist, rather than Western, Europe.

The scientists explain that one of the immune system's most important jobs is to learn when not to respond. Like the brain, the immune system learns as it grows. If the immune system isn't exposed to harmless bacteria in childhood, some researchers believe it will learn to mistake harmless substances such as pet dander as a threat.

This idea isn't a completely new one.

It was first proposed in 1989 and dubbed "The Hygiene Hypothesis." However, the authors of the current article, Dr. Graham Rook and Laura Rosa Brunet, say the rise of allergic disorders and possibly diseases such as diabetes, multiple sclerosis and inflammatory bowel diseases may be the result of obsessive cleanliness and the use of antibiotics and vaccinations, because all of these things may deprive the immune system of the chance to learn to respond properly.

Rook and Brunet came to their conclusions after reviewing more than a dozen past studies. Their findings don't, however, mean they are advocating giving up modern advances.

"Hygiene, antibiotics and vaccines are the most valuable creations of medicine. They save millions of lives," Rook says. "However, we also need to identify the environmental microorganisms that drive maturation of the immunoregulatory circuits, so that they can be put back into our environments as additional vaccines or food supplements."

"It's an interesting way to look at things," says Dr. Clifford Bassett, an allergist from New York University Medical Center in New York. "But, I'm not sold on the link. I don't think you can say people are getting more allergies because of the environment."

He says the best thing for people with allergies to do is work with their doctors to identify what triggers their specific allergies, and to avoid those allergens.

What To Do

For more information on the hygiene hypothesis, read this article from the University of Southern California or this one from the U.K.'s National Asthma Campaign.

SOURCES: Graham Rook, M.D., department of medical microbiology, Royal Free and University College of Medicine, London; Clifford Bassett, M.D., allergist, New York University Medical School, New York City; August 2002 Biologist
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