We’ve made great progress fighting infectious diseases. In our top 10 causes of death, the only infectious diseases are influenza and pneumonia. Together they rank No. 8 out of 10.
We have vaccines that help prevent infections like measles and flu. They help us as individuals and as a group, since the more people are vaccinated, the fewer infections are spread. We clean and treat minor cuts and wounds with antibiotic ointment. Antibiotic pills or injections often cure more serious bacterial infections.
But infections can still make life miserable — and kill. AIDS, the H1N1 pandemic and Ebola are reminders that deadly infectious diseases can travel the world overnight.
The experts at McKesson Care Management pass along facts about germs and how to combat them.
Learn About Germs
What are the germs that can make us sick? There are four types of germs, or microbes:
Bacteria are one-cell organisms. Most are harmless. Some help us digest food and fight off bad bugs. Less than 1% can cause illnesses like strep throat, ear and sinus infections, food poisoning and urinary tract infections. Most bacterial infections can be treated with antibiotics. But some have mutated and become resistant to antibiotics.
Viruses are even smaller. They’re tiny bits of genetic material and most of them can cause illness. They invade healthy cells in the body and take over and multiply. Viral diseases range from the flu and the common cold to HIV/AIDS and Ebola. Antibiotics don’t stop them.
Fungi include mushrooms, yeast, mold and mildew. Some fungi live in or on us without making us sick. They can even help us, like the fungi we use to make penicillin and other antibiotics. But about half of fungi can cause disease.
Parasites live on or in their hosts and get food from them. They include certain worms, critters like lice and ticks, and one-celled animals called protozoa. Diseases caused by parasites are a big health problem in some parts of the world but not in the U.S.
How are humans infected by microbes?
From the air: When someone coughs or sneezes, germs from airborne diseases travel out, suspended in a large cloud. You may inhale them, or be infected if you touch a surface they’ve landed on, and then touch your eyes, nose or mouth.
From direct contact with blood or body fluids: Herpes, HPV and HIV viruses and gonorrhea bacteria are some of the germs that can pass between sexual partners.
From insects: Mosquitoes, ticks and fleas spread illnesses like West Nile virus and Lyme disease.
From contaminated food or water: Germs like E. coli can be deadly to vulnerable people like the elderly and young.
How can you help prevent infections?
Get all the shots recommended for your age, risk factors and region. Childhood vaccines have dramatically cut serious illness and death from infectious diseases. Vaccines for older kids and adults can save misery, even lives.
Wash your hands often. You probably caught your last cold when you touched a surface with the virus on it, then touched your eye, nose or mouth and carried the virus to a new home — you. Wash the germs off your hands with soap and warm water. You don’t need antibacterial products — they can do more harm than good by helping germs develop resistance.
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