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Antibacterial Agents and Germs

by Rallie McAllister, MD, MPH

Like it or not, the world is teaming with germs. They’re lurking in every nook and cranny of our homes, offices, daycares, and public schools. Through no fault of our own, we’re exposed to billions of them on a daily basis. And because you can’t see these microscopic mongrels, you may feel helpless to defend yourself against them.  You never know when a seemingly harmless handshake, a quick slurp from the water fountain, or a brief trip to the restroom will introduce you and your children to a whole slew of disease-causing bacteria. Even if you keep your hands to yourself, you’re not entirely safe, since we all inhale millions of microbes a day.   

In the past, we were easy targets for these germs. But thanks to modern science, we can now arm ourselves with a smorgasbord of bacteria-bashing weapons. We can douse our vulnerable persons with antibacterial soaps, lotions, and deodorants. We can shield our children with antibacterial sippy cups, pillows, and pacifiers. Bacteria-killing cleansers and sponges, cutting boards, and appliances keep us safe in our kitchens. We can even protect our precious pets with anti-microbial doggie toys and kitty litter.

The magic ingredient in most of these new germ-fighting products is triclosan, a chemical that works by damaging the cell walls of bacteria and hindering their ability to multiply. To date, over hundreds of triclosan-containing products have been developed; all with the sole purpose of helping us win the war on germs. While it’s comforting to think that these new-fangled products can banish disease-causing bacteria from our surroundings, it’s not really practical. And when it comes down to it, creating a germ-free environment isn’t even a good idea. 

In reality, most bacteria are benign, but they serve an important purpose.  The development of a healthy immune system depends on our exposure to a wide variety of microbes, especially during childhood. Many experts fear that children raised in super-sterile environments will end up with weak, immature immune systems that leave them susceptible to disease.  Recent research supports this notion: Studies suggest that children living in overly clean homes are more likely to develop asthma and allergies.

These findings aren’t lost on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.  The organization has expressed concern that the widespread use of antibacterial agents will ultimately make bacteria more difficult to kill, leading to new strains of resistant bugs.  Doctors are already familiar with this phenomenon. The indiscriminate use of antibiotic medicines has created a few bacterial super-bugs that are virtually indestructible. 

Early antibiotics were capable of killing just about any kind of bacteria. But after the medicines wiped out the most sensitive germs, they left behind a few hardy stragglers that were genetically equipped with natural resistance to the drug. With their weaker brethren killed off, the remaining bacteria blossomed into a whole new generation of bugs that totally defied antibiotic treatment. As new drugs are developed to kill these monster microbes, the cycle is repeated.

Based on this scenario, it’s not too far-fetched to think that the same trend might occur with the use of antibacterial products. With this in mind, the American Medical Association and the World Health Organization are urging the federal government to tighten the regulatory screws on anti-microbial soaps, lotions, and other household items. The Environmental Protection Agency oversees the use of triclosan containing products.  While the organization contends that they’re safe to use and reasonably effective, it has already issued stern warnings to several manufacturers to stop making claims that their products protect people from getting infections. 

Antibacterial agents may keep some germs at bay, but that doesn’t mean that they’ll render you bullet proof against disease. The agents can’t kill fungi or parasites, and many aren’t strong enough to kill viruses, the bugs responsible for colds and the flu.   When it comes to banishing disease-causing bacteria, proper hand washing still seems to be best for kids and adults. But it’s a practice that’s largely neglected, since surveys show that fewer than half of Americans wash their hands on a regular basis, and almost none of them do it right. 

The good news is that plain old soap works wonders against most types of bacteria, damaging their cell walls and washing them away.  If you’re serious about protecting yourself and your children from disease-causing germs, you don’t have to spend a fortune on high-tech, high-priced antibacterial products.  A little soap, a little water, and a whole lot of elbow grease might be all that you need to win the battle on bacteria.

The information on MommyMDGuides.com is not intended to replace the diagnosis, treatment, and services of a physician. Always consult your physician or child care expert if you have any questions concerning your family's health. For severe or life-threatening conditions, seek immediate medical attention.