Bacteria: Embrace or Avoid...does it matter?

My friend is a bit of a germaphobe, not to the point where it interferes with life, but he will sanitize shopping cart handles, grab a bathroom door with the paper towel; little things that “prevent” spreading germs.

Myself, I take almost zero precaution outside of washing my hands after bathroom visits.

Comparing each other health wise, he tends to get sick more often than I do, maybe a 2:1 ratio. My question is, do my habits force my body into having a better immune system? Does his weaken his immune system? Is there a even a link between our habits and our illnesses?*

im talking common cold, the flu, typical everyday illness

I don’t have any sort of factual answer (I have lots of opinions) but for one data point, I am like you in basically ignoring everything except what I think of as normal hygiene. I go to the gym 5-6 times a week, and I wipe off the machines after I use them for other peoples’ sake, rather than wiping them off before I use them for my sake. I wash after using the toilet for similar reasons.

I used to get a cold maybe once or even twice a year. I haven’t been sick at all since I retired 14 months ago. I am personally convinced that my workplace, as most workplaces are, was a germfest. Possibly the train commute as well.

So that’s another condition to consider as a potential difference between you and your friend, i.e. your respective work lives. Do both of you have similar commute situations and work situations?

eta: I understand that children are also a frequent contributor to sharing illnesses with their families. Are children in the picture for either you or your friend?

Well, for kids at least, there is a large and growing body of evidence that strict avoidance of germs leads to the development of things like allergies and asthma, as well as to what are often referred to as ‘autoimmune diseases’.

Phrased in the opposite way, it seems that exposing a kid to the germs commonly found in the environment will lessen the chance of him/her getting allergies, asthma, and ‘autoimmune diseases’ as time goes on.

It’s as if the immune system tends to get into mischief unless it’s kept busy doing basic immune housekeeping.

Certain higher risk for pathologic germs contacts warrant some caution but the extreme measures that many take are mostly futile at preventing exposures anyway.

He is walking through clouds of debris and organisms coming off of you and everyone else all the time no matter what.

I’d suspect that your friend is a bit phobic because he is prone to getting sick rather than he gets sick because he is phobic.

My pet theory is that if you get exposed a little over a longer time that’s typically not enough to make you sick but enough to build up immunity, while a large exposure in a short time will make you sick before your immune system can do anything about it.

No idea if this is true or not…

I think it’s largely a factor of your individual immune system.

I get every darn cold on the planet, and spend much of the year sniffly and miserable. But when I’m pregnant, I do not get sick, even when in close proximity to sick people. It’s clearly a result of whatever changes in my immune system.

This is SOP at my hospital as part of the Microbial Minimization Plan* to protect patients (and staff). I do it at all public restrooms because people disgustingly do not wash after eliminating.

I would like to think that my extremely low cold incidence in recent years is because of a constantly revved-up immune system via contact with my Labrador retriever (who probably carries every germ in the Western Hemisphere), but maybe not.

*not actually called the MMP, but that’s the idea.

The immune system is not a single entity. It is a complicated inter-related set of components that have a range of roles, not all of them actually involved in creating or implementing immunity as we usually talk about it. The idea of becoming immune after exposure involves the leukocytes, which are manufactured to respond precisely to a particular recognised pathogen. For this, you need to have been exposed previously so that the pathogen is actually recognised - which is the whole point of immunisation.

But you do not generate a active immunity to every pathogen you are ever exposed to. Your immune system contains mechanisms to mop up small numbers of pathogens. Many pathogens are either too slow at mounting an infection, or actually not much of a threat, but still need mopping up. These are taken care of by the innate immune functions: macrophages and neutrophils. When pathogens are taken care of by these cells there is no active immune response involved, and no “memory” of the pathogen that results in a later active immunity.

It is when the innate immunity is overwhelmed and you get a proper infection, then the active immunity ramps up, and the multi-phase mechanism that eventually results in targeted leukocytes being manufactured to kill the infection. Then you also get long term immunity. It isn’t in the best interests of the body and your general health to have the active system revved up all the time. So it isn’t, and low level exposure to pathogens isn’t generating any immunity to them. There is a threshold before it kicks in. Immunisation against diseases requires that this threshold (even it is with a partial, or weakened pathogen) be reached, otherwise it won’t work.

We live in a world of microbes and have been since forever. You have several hundred different microbes on your body and they exceed your own cells in number. Your friend is mildly neurotic and his fears are unfounded.
I agree that our immune systems vary from person to person but probably not as much as you think.
For those of you who are sick a lot, try eating a healthier diet. I have not been sick in years, even from a cold. I have a simple salad everyday, a banana smoothie for breakfast three mornings a week and I avoid sugar. This is obviously not a very scientific example but I see smokers and people who eat crappy food complain about being sick all the time.

I am a smoker and eat crappy food and am no sicker then my co workers are during the typical year. Need more sanitizer wipes. They need more, not I because I start using them when co worders start getting sick because it inevitably goes around. LOL.

“The hygiene hypothesis” is some new scientific thinking that is getting a lot of serious attention.

Basically it states that your body evolved in an environment where it expects to be under constant attack from microbes and parasites. If you remove all these threats it has side effects. Specifically, your body “knows” that their are parasites and microbes attacking you constantly. If it can’t find them, it attacks the the parts of itself where it expects the invaders to be, or it attacks the parts of itself that remind it most of these invaders. There is evidence that several allergic reactions and diseases like diverticulitis are actually your body attacking itself in the absence of these invaders. Infecting yourself with intestinal worms seems to lessen the symptoms of the latter.

Encountering pathogens an letting your body deal with them seems to strengthen its ability to do so in the future.

Rather than doing anything useful in the long term, products like Purell may be mainly breeding disinfectant resistant bacteria.

I think this makes a lot of sense, but I don’t get crazy about it. Hygiene is extraordinarily important in hospital settings and in food prep. Personally, I don’t wash my hands unless someone is watching. I never use Purell or soap during the day, or anything like that, I put my hands in my mouth and touch my face and grab door handles, and get dog kisses and mess around in the dirt.

My wife uses purell, by the gallon and is a real germaphobe. She gets sick a couple of times a year. I think I’ve had one cold that was worth mentioning in the last 5 or 6 years. I suspect though that this has more to do with the fact that I run and work out every day and eat really healthy, than hygiene.

This why caution about handles is not misplaced:

Believe me, it is most unpleasant.


So there is a level required for the immune system to learn a certain pathogen, and there’s a level required for an infection significant enough to become ill. My theory makes sense if the first level is lower than the second level, but not if the first is equal to or higher than the second.

I’m sure I had that a couple of years ago. Luckily I was good after 2 days but at its worst I couldn’t hold down water. :frowning:

I live in moderation; I avoid handling things that are likely infected, and I wash my hands many times a day. I don’t use Purell constantly or hold a tissue before touching door handles. I don’t get sick that often.