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Ask Dr. Ty: Will early exposure to colds boost immunity?

/ Source: theGrio

"I had my son in daycare for the three years leading up to his start in Kindergarten this fall," Cheryl G.McGrattan asks on Facebook. "He got every cold and virus that cycled through the class. I am told he will be more resilient and have good immunity in the years that follow. Is this truth or wishful thinking?"

There is actually some truth to this.

A child exposed to colds and viruses earlier in life will develop a stronger immune system and is less likely to become sick in his or her later years.

“Immunity is immunity,” explains Dr. Jordan S. Orange, chief of immunology, allergy and rheumatology at Texas Children’s Hospital. “When you get it, you have it. So, if you get it earlier, you’re going to be immune earlier.”

However, here’s the catch: there are actually hundreds of different cold viruses. For example, adenovirus -- one of many viruses that causes cough, congestion, pink eye and diarrhea -- has 54 different types.

So, while children may build up immunity to the two or three viruses they’ve been exposed to, there are still hundreds more that their immune systems have not yet encountered. Meaning, that child may get sick from the new viruses just like everyone else.

Some experts still say more exposure to germs is better. The use of hand sanitizers and excessive cleanliness are actually blamed for the increase in asthma, allergies and autoimmune disorders in a theory called the “hygiene hypothesis.”

This hypothesis supports the idea that in unclean environments -- such as places where children live among animals in unsanitary conditions -- immune systems are stronger with a lower incidence of allergies and asthma.

Similarly, Orange says that the immune system’s ability to fight off disease is natural and dates back to evolution.

“Our immune system was built for more action than it gets,” he says. “We were once born into piles of dirt. Our immune systems have evolved to handle those challenges extremely well. But, in our modern society, it’s not something we’re up against that much.”

So should parents abandon the hand sanitizers and disinfectants and just let their children roll around in the dirt, in hopes of stronger immune systems?

Not quite, Orange says.

“I think there’s good evidence that if people are using [hand sanitizer] on their hands, they do get fewer respiratory illnesses,” he says, adding that it comes at a cost.

Either choice has its consequences. Exposing a child to viruses at a very young age means having a sick child at a time when his or her airways are tiny, and symptoms such as diarrhea can severely dehydrate them.

On the other hand, protecting kids from those early viruses may lead to more than just the aforementioned illnesses. For older children, frequently staying home sick could negatively affect their learning.

“The bottom line message,” Orange says, “is that any action is going to have a repercussion, even if it’s mild. You have to live your life, and simply do what’s right for your family.”

Dr. Tyeese Gaines is a physician-journalist with over 10 years of print and broadcast experience, now serving as health editor for NBC's Dr. Ty is also a practicing emergency medicine physician in New Jersey. Follow her on twitter at @doctorty.


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