Dr. Edwards' Blog
Kids love to put their hands in their mouths. Up to 25% of children suck their thumb or bite their nails, despite warnings not to. Dentists and dermatologists warn that thumb sucking can adversely affect gum and mouth health and even lead to skin conditions that increase the risk of infections. And nail biting—not the most hygienic habit, as our hands are teeming with bacteria—often continues into adulthood.
But in a study just published in the journal Pediatrics, researchers from New Zealand and Canada found that children who suck their thumbs or bite their nails are less likely to have allergic-type reactions to a variety of things, including pets and mites, than children who don’t. In fact, kids who engage in both habits have the lowest positive tests on skin-prick tests for allergies.
Researchers followed a group of about 1,000 people from birth until age 32 and tested them periodically for allergies using a skin-prick test. While testing positive did indicate they were allergic, it didn’t necessarily mean that the person would have severe reactions to the allergens, like rashes, inflammation, sneezing or wheezing.
About half of the people who didn’t suck their thumb or bite their nails as children tested positive for allergies at age 32. Children who had at least one of the two habits were 40% less likely to test positive as adults, and children who did both showed the lowest rates of reactions to the allergens—31%—as adults.
Still, the data does not suggest that thumb sucking or nail biting are a good way to prevent allergies. “What we are saying is don’t be quite so afraid of a little bit of dirt,” says Dr. Malcolm Sears, a respirologist at McMaster University and one of the co-authors of the study. “We’re not sure what it is in dirt, whether it’s microbes or some other substance, that actually protects us. We’re not quite there yet.” In the meantime, the researchers say being a little less clean might not be such a bad thing for our health.
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