Have you ever stopped your kids from getting their hands dirty with mud or sand? If so, you may want to rethink your stand as many medical experts now believe that playing with mud is a great way to strengthen your child’s immunity. In fact, doctors and scientists believe that allergies and asthma are higher in wealthy countries due to lack of exposure to bacteria and other microorganisms — a fact backed by several studies.
One such study, published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology found that children with the highest exposure to specific allergens and bacteria (including cockroach, mouse and cat allergens) in the first year were less likely to have wheezing by age three. And children exposed to a wider variety of bacteria were less likely to develop allergies and asthma.
Dr Parimala V. Thirumalesh, consultant, neonatology and paediatrics, Aster CMI Hospital, points out that in India, we have lesser allergies overall because we have higher germ exposure than in the western world. “Exposure to germs builds immunity, and works in the same way as vaccines, which expose kids to a small amount of germs so that when the real infection strikes, the body fights it better. In fact, street kids are a lot healthier than those brought up in very clean conditions,” she says.
“By being exposed to dirt and mud, the immune system is exposed to various microbiota,” explains Sreenath Manikanti, senior consultant paediatrician and neonatology, Fortis La Femme Hospital, Bangalore. “There are scientific reports on mud therapy and their impact on the immune system. Playing in the mud has other advantages for kids as well, like development of the sensory nervous system, developing fine motor skills and enhancing creativity,” he adds.
Dr Thirumalesh points out that even the umbilical cord which harbours a lot of bacteria is left on a newborn for a few days as these natural bacteria help fight against various infections. “Exposure to natural bacteria is good and recommended,” she states.
Agreeing with her, Dr Pratik Patil, consultant, infectious diseases at Fortis Hospital in Bangalore, adds, “The more people keep away from natural surroundings, the higher are the cases of autoimmune conditions. Exposure to germs in a subtle way is excellent to improve immunity.” Dr Manikanti adds, “Natural experiences like gardening, visiting farm houses etc. are great ways to achieve this.”
The hygiene hypothesis which has gained large acceptance among the scientific and medical community states that early exposure to microorganisms helps a child’s immune system develop resistance to infections and protects against allergic diseases. Does this mean that one should expose kids to germs from the day they are born?
“For the first six months, kids are not mobile. It’s nature’s way of preventing exposure to germs. During that time, kids are also protected by the mother’s immunity. It’s only after six months that babies start crawling and get exposed to different surfaces,” explains Dr Chandrashekar, paediatrician, Narayana Multispeciality Hospital, Bangalore. “For the first six months, the immune system is not developed, so one needs to be a little careful,” adds Dr Manikanti.
Dr Chandrashekar is however, quick to point out that exposure to germs does not mean exposure to a sick person. “All organisms are not disease-causing ones. But one needs to protect kids from disease-causing germs and infections. Avoid very crowded places. When kids are sick, parents should not send them to school. Cases of infection are also rising so one needs to be careful,” he says.
“Ensure the mud they are playing in is not contaminated with dirty water or faecal matter,” cautions Dr Patil, adding that some basic hygiene practices like washing hands after play time and before meals, eating healthy food and drinking clean water can be helpful in reducing the risk of infections.