Did you know there are over 65,000 known germs, but only about 1,400 cause disease?
The four major types of germs are bacteria, viruses, fungi and protozoa. They can infect our bodies and cause disease. There is a difference between infection and disease. We can be infected without being diseased.
An infection is the first step, which occurs when bacteria, viruses or other microbes that cause disease enter our body and begin to multiply. Disease is when the cells in our body are damaged as a result of the infection, and symptoms of an illness appear.
Most germs won’t hurt us. Our immune system protects us against infections. But germs may mutate and breach the immune system. Knowing how germs work will reduce your risk of infection.
Bacteria are one-celled organisms. They are visible only with a microscope. Not all bacteria are harmful. Some bacteria live in our body and are helpful, such as Lactobacillus acidophilus, which lives in our intestines and helps us digest food, destroys some disease-causing organisms and provides nutrients.
Disease-causing bacteria will produce toxins that can damage cells and make you ill. Some bacteria directly invade and damage cell tissues. Some infections caused by bacteria include strep throat, tuberculosis and urinary tract infections.
Viruses are much smaller than our cells. Viruses are organisms that contain only genetic material. To reproduce, viruses invade cells in our bodies and change how our cells work. Most host cells are eventually destroyed during this process, which can kill us.
Viruses are responsible for causing numerous diseases, including AIDS, the common cold, Ebola hemorrhagic fever, genital herpes, influenza, measles, chickenpox and shingles.
Antibiotics for bacteria have no effect on viruses.
There are many varieties of fungi. Fungi are organisms that are reproduced by spores. We eat a number of them, such as mushrooms. The mold that forms the blue or green veins in some types of cheese are also fungi. So is yeast, the ingredient that makes bread rise.
Some fungi can also cause illness. Fungi are also responsible for skin conditions such as athlete’s foot and ringworm.
A protozoan is a single-celled organism that acts like a tiny animal. Protozoans eat other microbes for food. A few types of protozoans are found in our intestinal tract and are harmless.
Protozoans spend part of their life cycle outside the host. Protozoans live in food, soil, water and insects. Some protozoans invade our bodies through food or water we consume.
Some cause diseases such as giardia, malaria and toxoplasmosis. The protozoan that causes malaria is transmitted by a mosquito.
An easy way to contract most infectious diseases is by coming in contact with a person, animal or object that has the infection. Three ways infectious diseases can be spread through direct contact are:
Person to person: This is the most common way for infectious diseases to spread is when a person infected with the bacterium or virus touches, kisses, coughs on or sneezes on someone who isn’t infected. The germs can also spread through the exchange of body fluids from sexual contact. People who pass germs may have no symptoms of their disease.
Animal to person: Getting bitten or scratched by an infected animal can make you sick. It can be fatal in extreme situations. Handling animal waste can make you sick. You can acquire a toxoplasmosis infection by scooping your cat’s litter.
Mother to unborn child: A pregnant woman can pass germs that cause infectious diseases to her unborn baby. The germs can pass through the placenta connecting mother and baby. Germs in the vagina can be transmitted to the baby during birth.
Bacteria, viruses, fungi and protozoa can enter our bodies through:
- Skin contact or injuries.
- Inhaling airborne germs.
- Consuming contaminated food or water.
- Tick or mosquito bites.
- Sexual contact.
You should get medical care if you suspect that you have an infection and you have experienced any of the following:
- An animal or human bite
- Difficulty breathing
- A cough lasting longer than a week.
- Periods of rapid heartbeat.
- A rash, especially if accompanied by a fever.
- Blurred vision or other difficulty seeing.
- Persistent vomiting.
- An unusual or severe headache.
- Reducing risk of infection
The CDC recommends the following to help reduce your risk of becoming infected:
Wash your hands. This is especially important before and after preparing food or drinks, before eating or drinking, after using the toilet, and after removing soiled clothes or shoes. Try not to touch your eyes, nose or mouth with your hands, as that’s a common way germs enter the body. Soap and water work well to kill germs. Wash for at least 20 seconds and rub your hands briskly. Disposable hand wipes or gel sanitizers also work well. Gel sanitizers and hand wipes should be 70% alcohol-based.
Get vaccinated. Immunization can drastically reduce your chances of contracting many diseases. Make sure to keep up to date on your recommended vaccinations, as well as your children’s.
Stay home when ill. Don’t go to work if you are vomiting, have diarrhea or have a fever. Don’t send your child to school if he or she has these signs and symptoms, either.
Prepare food safely. Keep counters and other kitchen surfaces clean when preparing meals. Cook foods to the proper temperature using a food thermometer to check for doneness. For ground meats, that means at least 160 degrees F (71 C); for poultry, 165 F (74 C); and for most other meat, at least 145 F (63 C). In addition, promptly refrigerate leftovers. Don’t let cooked foods remain at room temperature for extended periods of time.
Practice safe sex. Always use condoms if you or your partner has a history of sexually transmitted infections or high-risk behavior.
Don’t share personal items. Use your own toothbrush, comb and razor. Avoid sharing drinking glasses or dining utensils.
Travel wisely. If you’re traveling out of the country, talk to your doctor about any special vaccinations.
If you work out in a gym, be careful. You are exposed to a lot of people. You are using equipment that was just used. Clean the padding before you use it. More than 50% of healthy persons have Staphylococcus aureus living in or on their nasal passages, throats, hair and skin.
Swimming can be dangerous, too. The average swimmer contributes at least 0.14 grams of fecal material to the water within the first 15 minutes of entering the pool. Showering with soap before swimming helps stop the spread of germs by removing fecal material from the body.
You should also make sure your gym has good air circulation. We can’t wash the air in a gym, but the exchange of air should be good.
Pets and other animals
Got a pet? Be careful. To reduce the risk of getting sick from germs your pets may carry, always wash your hands after:
• Touching or playing with your pet.
• Feeding your pet or handling pet food.
• Handling pet habitats or equipment (cages, tanks, toys, food and water dishes, etc.)
• Cleaning up after pets.
• Leaving areas where animals live (coops, barns, stalls, etc.), even if you did not touch an animal.
Going to the zoo this season? Try to make it safe:
• Don’t walk and eat. Your hands will touch a lot of contaminated objects.
• Don’t let your little one use a pacifier. They touch that pacifier with everything. They may even share it with an animal.
• Wipe off any seating or table you use in the zoo.
• Don’t feed the animals from your hand.
• If you have an open wound, cover it completely.
• Try not to come into contact with any animal waste. It’s teaming with germs.
This article originally appeared in The Philadelphia Tribune.