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Column originally published Apr 29, 2014

Don’t Over-Sanitize Your Home

Question: I am pregnant with our first baby. I want to do everything right, and I am terrified of germs. My sister keeps her house extremely clean; she uses Lysol spray on every surface and she cleans the doorknobs many times a day. There is antiseptic soap and hand sanitizers everywhere. In spite of this, her one-year-old daughter is always sick. She has a constant running nose, and she has had several ear infections already. She takes a probiotic every day for months, and I don’t think it has helped her at all. I want to know what I can do to keep our baby healthy.


I am afraid all the cleaning and sanitizing that your sister has done is not helpful for your niece; there is a good chance that she may have caused some of her illnesses. Let me explain to you here.

We are surrounded by billions and billions of germs; our skin is covered with numerous germs. Most of them are healthy germs. Unfortunately, everyone associates germs with disease. It is true that some germs cause Strept throat, sinus infection, pneumonia, kidney infection, wound infection, etc. There are outbreaks of E. coli from food poisoning. People catch Clostridium difficile and MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) infections in hospital, and have died from it.

The truth is that there is a relatively small number of germs that are harmful to us. The vast majority of germs or bacteria around us are completely harmless, if we have a healthy immune system. If I have cancer and need anti-cancer medicine, this can damage my immune system so that I cannot fight off normal germs that get into my body. However, most of the time, these normal germs are on my skin, inside my mouth and in my gastrointestinal tract.

In recent years, scientists have found that there are too many varieties of normal germs for them to be named. We don’t know how these normal germs interact with our body. There is a strong possibility that many of them are boosting our immune system in a subtle way that will take scientists many years to figure out.

These normal and healthy germs are in our environment, on our table, around our furniture, and, yes, even on doorknobs. We touch our surrounding with our hands, and transfer some of our germs onto whatever we touch. Excessive sterilization of our environment kills these healthy germs. Over-exposure to chemicals like Lysol and others may not be healthy for our body also.

It is a good habit to teach children to wash their hands with regular soap and water for 20 seconds before they eat; this will remove almost all of the harmful germs. However, unless someone is sick, it is not necessary to use hand-sanitizer at home to kill healthy germs. There is also a concern that some of the chemicals in anti-bacterial soap can induce antibiotic-resistance in germs.

As healthcare professionals, we put alcohol on our hands and chemical wipes on our stethoscopes to prevent passing potentially harmful germs from one patient to another. This makes sense only in healthcare facilities, but not at your home.

What you can do is to plan to have natural birth for your child. Some mothers prefer elective Caesarian section because they want to avoid the stress of natural birth. This is a big mistake. When a baby is born through the mother’s birth canal, he takes in the mother’s normal germs during birth, and these germs will grow and multiply in his intestines and will become his normal germs that can last the rest of his life. When a baby is born by Caesarian section before the mother’s water break, the delivery is completely sterile and the baby will take in some of the germs from his environment, in the hospital. These germs will not be as rich in diversity or numbers as the germs in the mother’s birth canal.

Another very important thing that you can do is to plan to breastfeed your baby. You will provide her with the milk that suits her the best, as well as immunoglobulins that can help her to fight off infections. Furthermore, by latching her on your breasts, your baby will pick up the normal healthy germs on your skin.

Many people take probiotic for all sorts of reasons. It is commonly used for diarrhea, especially when this is caused by taking antibiotics. The theory is that antibiotics kill the normal germs in our intestines, and probiotic will replenish the normal germs. What most people don’t know is that research has shown that probiotic may shorten the duration of diarrhea by one day only. Most probiotic contains one or two types of germs, and there are numerous variety of normal germs in our intestines that probiotic cannot replace. Given a little more time, the remaining normal germs in our intestines will grow back to replace all the germs that were lost; what our intestines need is a little more time.

Finally, I should mention that you should make sure that your baby receives all the recommended vaccines which can protect her from many serious infections. You and your partner, as well as grandparents who may be your baby’s caretakers, should receive whooping cough vaccine after your delivery. Whooping cough is a serious illness, and your baby’s early immunization will not protect her against it for several months after birth. Influenza infection is another serious illness, if you get the flu shot, you can reduce the chance of passing the virus to her when she is very young.

With some common sense, and avoid excessive sterilization of the environment, you can raise a healthy and happy child.