The many faces of the hygiene hypothesis

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Abstract

About 15 years have gone by since Strachan first proposed the idea that infections and unhygienic contact might confer protection against the development of allergic illnesses. The so-called hygiene hypothesis has ever since undergone numerous more or less subtle modifications by various researchers in the fields of epidemiology, clinical science, and immunology. Three major tracts have developed exploring the role of overt viral and bacterial infections, the significance of environmental exposure to microbial compounds, and the effect of both on underlying responses of the innate and adaptive immunity. To date, a truly unifying concept has not yet emerged, but various pieces of a complex interplay between immune responses of the host, characteristics of the invading microorganism, the level and variety of the environmental exposure, and the interactions between a genetic background and a range of exposures becomes apparent. These influences are discussed as determinants for a number of complex allergic illnesses in this review, while we attempt to pay attention to the importance of different phenotypes, namely of the asthma syndrome. Even if today practical implications cannot directly be deduced from these findings, there is great potential for the development of novel preventive and therapeutic strategies in the future.

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