The Hygiene Hypothesis

Ros Astengo - Thursday 7th May

Who would have thought on the cusp of 2019, with the clock ticking towards 2020 and Brexit, that a family of new words would storm into our daily lexicon along with Covid-19, and change our lives so dramatically?

One of these: “sanitising”.

Have you sanitised? Is the area sanitised? Please sanitise before touching. Not a day goes by without hearing these words repeated almost ad nauseum. We now sanitise everything from supermarket trollies to our desks at work.

And yet, the word seems vaguely counter-intuitive, because growing up, weren’t we always taught that exposure to germs helps build a strong immune system?

Sloshing happily in a mud pond as a kid never did anyone any harm, right? Or, indeed, that amusing social myth called the five-second rule (when you pop your favourite treat in your mouth after accidentally dropping it on the floor for a few seconds)?

We sterilise babies’ bottles, but eventually we let them crawl around on the floor and stick things in their mouths: which are clean, yes, but not necessarily sterile. Although, of course, germs can be extremely harmful, we also know that they’re a part of growing up, because once a body is infected with a specific virus, it learns how to make antibodies to fight it.

This is what’s known as the “Hygiene Hypothesis”: when being too clean isn’t always good for us.

Research suggests that microbes - microscopic organisms such as bacteria, fungi, viruses, and yes, dirt – are all crucial for our well-being, and that early exposures to a variety of microbes can help lower the risk of developing conditions like asthma and allergies.

But while we continue to battle the potentially fatal Covid-19 virus, and navigate unknown territory, we have little choice but to follow public health advice and keep Sanitising, Hand Washing and Social Distancing. How much of this will remain with us once the Covid crisis recedes?

The American billionaire Howard Hughes (brilliantly portrayed by Leonardo di Caprio in the film “Aviator”) was on the extreme end of germophobia (he was also mentally ill). But, as we clean up our act, we might want to ask ourselves this question: Whereabouts on a hypothetical “germophobic scale” – the new normal - will this pandemic leave us? It’s certainly (takeaway) food for thought.

Disclaimer: I am not a medical expert. Please always follow Public Health advice, regarding hygiene and hand washing. Here are some useful links