How early contact with germs gives kids’ immune systems a boost
Few things are as great an indicator of immune system health as the annual college plague. Once the temperatures drop, with students and faculty confined to classrooms, offices and dorms, all it takes is one sick person, one cough or sneeze, and suddenly half the campus is stuck in bed. And just as it seems as though the sickness is gone, it cycles back around again and again until spring finally arrives and every window on campus is thrown open to clear the air. This is elementary school all over again.
And then there’s me. I am by no means the healthiest person on campus: I’m allergic to furry things inside, nature things outside and even the sun if I’m out for more than 15 minutes. However, when it comes to the annual college plague, or any other afflictions caused by being trapped inside for five months out of the year, I’m usually the only functional person in my apartment. Every year, my roommates ask me why I’m never sick when they’re practically bedridden with headaches and hacked-up lungs, and every year I tell them it’s because I’ve already been exposed to anything airborne a germy college student can throw at me.
Admittedly, this lesson originally started as a way to get them to stop making fun of me for going to daycare as a kid — apparently it was horrifying for them to know both my parents work full-time — but the science behind it is sound. Our immune system works in two ways: innate immunity and acquired immunity. The former is the generic, base-line defense against pathogens, designed to keep us functional while the latter develops. Acquired immunity, as the name suggests, only develops after exposure to the germ in question. This is how vaccines work. We don’t get the measles after receiving the vaccine because it prepares our immune system to fight the measles when it comes.
My daycare superiority story comes into play with this acquired immunity. According to a 2010 analysis through the Quebec Longitudinal Study of Child Development, and substantiated by personal experience, kids who go to daycare or are otherwise exposed to a plethora of other people, get an early jump on that acquired immunity. Meanwhile, the kids who stayed home with their parents aren’t exposed to overwhelming germiness until school, so their innate immunity is still trying to fend off the new intruders while their acquired immunity is beefing up.
This then leads us to the hygiene hypothesis, which was first proposed by British epidemiologist David Strachan in 1989. The idea suggested reduced exposure at an early age to bacteria and other “germs,” including the bacteria normally found on our skin and in our digestive systems, makes people more susceptible to immune system problems later on. These problems are mainly allergies and asthma, but some cases have led to greater inflammation-based conditions, such as type 1 diabetes. We wouldn’t be so impacted by the annual college plague — not to mention countless other allergies and conditions — if we were exposed to these germs early on to build our immune system.
The solution? Abandon the sterile environment idea. Still bathe kids, of course, but let them play in the dirt too. There are a lot of studies that support this. A study funded by the University of Gothenburg in Sweden showed hand-washing your dishes reduces allergies later on because the lack of a sterilization cycle often found in dishwashers leads to increased microbial exposure. This exposure is increased when serving fermented foods or foods from local farms.
Kids who go to daycare will inevitably pick up every bug known to science as infants and toddlers, and based on a study done at Wilhelmina Children’s Hospital in Utrecht in the Netherlands, they’ll have fewer respiratory problems than their non-daycare counterparts once they get to elementary school. For infants at risk of developing a peanut allergy, even gradual exposure to peanut products could help reduce the likelihood of a severe reaction later on, as shown by a Learning Early about Peanut Allergy trial in the United States and United Kingdom.
I’ve seen this in action as well – not only having gone to daycare, but also having owned an especially hairy dog for 12 years. Being at college, and therefore not around Sage, noticeably reduces my dog tolerance. The first few days of being home for break is filled with nasal congestion, but after that, I’m fine. Sure, having hair all around the house isn’t ideal, but it works out in the end, and it’s a lot less traumatizing for the kids than getting a pet and having your parents return it to the shelter once they realize you’re allergic to it. Trust me.
It may be too late for us to go to daycare as infants and stack our immune systems so we’re ready to fight the college plague, but even a relatively small school like Ithaca College acts as a daycare in its own right by preparing our immune systems for the real world. We just don’t get as many naps.
Amanda Hutchinson is a senior journalism major who wants you to send your kids out into the world. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.