How germs can actually be good for you

Bugs, pathogens, microbes and germs. These tiny organisms go by many names, but do we really need to be scared of them?

Germs have earned a bad reputation over the past few decades – and the pandemic hasn’t helped.

But not all bacteria are bad. Of the trillions of microorganisms from around 10,000 tiny species living on the average human body, only a fraction cause illness.

And in some cases, germs can have plenty of benefits.

How bacteria influence our health

Bugs, pathogens, microbes, germs – there are plenty of names for tiny organisms that thrive on our bodies and in the world.

Bacteria are found on the skin, nose, mouth and especially in the gut.

Good bacteria help our bodies digest food and absorb nutrients, repair cells and assist skin health.

On the other hand, harmful bacteria can invade our bodies and multiply, making you sick.

Deakin University epidemiology chair Professor Catherine Bennett says despite there being two distinct categories, most of us know little about healthy microbes.

“We don’t talk about good bacteria a lot, but when we do, we talk about gut flora,” Prof Bennett says.

“We talk about probiotics (good bacteria) and that they can restore your gut microbiome.

“But this is true for bacteria throughout the body, particularly on your skin.”

Prof Bennett says in many situations, good germs fight off the bad ones and are often much more effective than using antibiotics – which is why we want to keep them around.

How to balance good and bad bacteria

Soap, hand sanitiser and chemical disinfectants will kill bacteria.

But Australian National University infectious diseases Professor Peter Collignon warns these products are “indiscriminate”.

“One of the problems with antibiotics and chemical disinfectants is they kill all the good guys as well as the bad guys,” Prof Collignon says.

This has become especially troublesome given the rise in alcohol-based sanitisers and disinfectants during the pandemic.

Prof Collignon says the best approach to keeping harmful bugs at bay, without also killing all the good ones, is to use potent disinfectants only when the risk of catching something bad is high.

“It depends on what situation you’re in and the proportionate risk,” Prof Collignon says.

“If you’re a healthcare worker where you’re dealing with a lot of vulnerable people, or you’re in a situation where there’s no soap and water like when you go to a restaurant, then hand sanitiser is helpful.

“But if you’re in the home, soap and water is fine.”

Another tip is not to use harsh chemicals when cleaning the house.

Instead, scrub with soap and water.

“What you need to do is keep it clean,” Prof Collignon says.

“Too often, we think there’s an instant solution, and we forget the basics.

“Like, don’t put food where you’ve had raw meat, for instance, and when you’re cleaning, 99 per cent of the work should be elbow grease, not chemicals.”

How to boost good bacteria

There are plenty of ways to increase helpful bacteria in our bodies, such as:

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