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Bad habits

Immune boost for children with bad habits

Go to the profile of Heidi Burdett
Jul 11, 2016
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I was delighted to see in the news today that my ‘bad’ habits as a child, such as sucking my thumb and biting my nails, may actually have helped me to stay free from ‘allergies’ such as asthma and hay fever later in life.

Many of us will be familiar with the ‘hygiene hypothesis’, which proposes that exposure to infectious agents early in life help to build up a child’s immune system, thereby reducing sensitivity to allergic diseases such as asthma and hay fever. This was first proposed by David Strachan in 1989, so has been around as an idea for almost as long as I have!

This week, writing in Pediatrics, Lynch et al have provided renewed support for this hypothesis, finding that children who frequently sucked their thumb or bit their nails had a lower risk of developing ‘atopic sensitisation’ (or allergic reaction) when they were 13 and 32 years old, and that both habits had a synergistic effect. The authors’ suggested reason for this? Microorganisms, of course! These ‘bad’ habits likely increase a child’s exposure to environmental microorganisms, with subsequently positive long-term impacts on the developing immune response.

Does this mean these habits should be encouraged? The authors suggest not (there are, of course, still lots of ‘nasties’ waiting to be gobbled up by toddlers sucking their thumbs), but I’m sure these findings will give some comfort when we are battling with children’s desire to put their fingers in their mouths! It’s ok, it’s good for the immune system.

Go to the profile of Heidi Burdett

Heidi Burdett

Editor, Nature Microbiology

2 Comments

Go to the profile of Matti Jalasvuori
Matti Jalasvuori over 1 year ago

Nice that this has been studied to some extent! I pretty much never ask my kids to wash their hands, which, to some, seems weird for a microbiologist working with 'superbugs'. Yet, they (kids) have always been surprisingly healthy. Of course, as a scientist, I have to admit that its most probably just good 'luck' :)

Go to the profile of Heidi Burdett
Heidi Burdett over 1 year ago

I spent most of my childhood playing around in mud turned out ok (I think!) :)