Kids, Dirt, and Allergies

I grew up in a rural, agrarian community, and my mom has stories to tell about not being able to keep me clean: I was always in the dirt. We have a picture of my one-year-old self sitting at the base of the washline pole in my diaper, with dirt all over me! My next-door neighbor and I used to slide under the electric fence and go play in the cow pasture. I’d dig around in streambeds, looking for tadpoles, hellgrammites, planaria, and anything else of interest; rescue toads from window wells; go visit my grandfather’s steers and hogs… and then there was the night when my cousin and I got up at midnight to run around in the chicken coop in our bare feet…

Yeah, there were a lot of germs, parasites, creepy-crawlies, and other stuff involved in my childhood. I didn’t get ragingly ill or die of any bacterial infections — just the ordinary childhood stuff: chicken pox, colds, and the like.

Many parents today are afraid that their kids will get sick from contact with animals, and I think this is the child’s loss, from a life-experience perspective and from an overall health perspective. A little healthy inoculation of our bodies with germs every now and then serves to strengthen our immune systems, making our bodies more resistant to disease.

A 2012 study on Amish children raised on farms shows a much lower incidence of asthma and allergies, strengthening the idea that a little dirt won’t kill you; in fact, it’s a good thing! NBC covered the story and the original article in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology can be found here.

So let your kids run around in the chicken coop and handle the birds! It’s good for body and soul!

2 responses to this post.

  1. I could not agree more! I played in the dirt a ton as a kid, and I have no allergies whatsoever. I let—heck, I encourage—my own kids to play in the dirt also.

    One thing I’ve always wondered about, and I bet you know the answer. When I was a kid, grown-ups always told me not to pick up bird feathers off the ground because they could be diseased. I find myself telling my kids that too, but I’m not even sure if it’s true. Do you know?


    • Yes, I was told that, too. Birds do carry diseases – but most are communicable only to birds. The main risks are salmonella and E. coli, which are about the same as for a parakeet or a turtle. There is a very small chance of mites being transferred, but lice and internal parasites are specific to the species.

      If the feather is on the ground and no longer on the bird, any mites/lice on it probably went off in search of greener pastures. Why hang out on something that’s no longer attached to a living organism? I collected birds, live and dead, for a rescue group, and have collected feathers as well, never with any negative repercussions.

      Washing hands is the key, just as with dogs and cats. I think it’s funny that people don’t think twice about getting a dog or cat, whose poop you have to pick up/scoop by hand. These common pets also use their tongues to clean themselves and then lick your face.

      But a chicken – some folks are terrified of getting chicken germs! LOL


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