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Are We Scrubbing Away the Good Guys?

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PHOTO: The CDC says keeping hands clean is the best way to prevent the spread of illness. Courtesy of: CDC
PHOTO: The CDC says keeping hands clean is the best way to prevent the spread of illness. Courtesy of: CDC
November 29, 2012

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - It's the cold and flu season, and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends hand-washing to keep yourself healthy and prevent spreading germs when you do get sick. However, a study from Johns Hopkins University raises questions about whether people are "too clean," due to using antibacterial products. The researchers found that children with higher levels of chemicals from antibacterial soaps had more allergies.

Children's Mercy Hospital Allergy and Immunology specialist Dr. Jay Portnoy says not all bacteria are bad, so we do not want to be scrubbing away the good ones.

"If we start to kill off all the normal bacteria, use too many antimicrobial soaps, then we don't develop the ability to get along with them, and they don't provide the service that we're used to."

The services they provide help in fighting off the bad bacteria. Researchers say lack of exposure to bad bacteria can cause our immune systems to become overactive and react to things like cats and pollen.

Portnoy describes it as a symbiotic relationship that we have with the normal bacteria living on, and in, us.

"Our skin has bacteria on it. Our intestines have bacteria in them, and they provide services. They help us digest our food. They help produce vitamins and minerals for us. They help to fend off the pathogens or the bad bacteria."

Portnoy is not suggesting that people stop washing their hands. He says everyone needs to wash with soap and water to prevent the spread of disease - especially doctors.

"I do wash my hands before every patient, and patients should ask their doctor to do that. If your doctor walks into the room and he or she doesn't wash their hands, before they touch you ask them to please wash their hands."

He agrees with the CDC that keeping hands clean is one of the best ways to prevent the spread of disease, but says further studies are needed on the chemicals contained in antibacterial soaps.

The study is available at www.hopkinschildrens.org. CDC hand-washing guidelines are at www.cdc.gov.

Mary Anne Meyers, Public News Service - MO