By Chris Woolston, MS
Germs have gotten a bad rap. Some of them are actually good for us, like the ones in our intestines that help us break down food. But we're also surrounded by potentially harmful germs known as pathogens. They lurk everywhere, from the surface of public phones to bottles of unrefrigerated garlic paste. Disease-causing germs, in fact, are always looking for their chance to invade a new host. All it takes is a cut or scrape, a dog bite that breaks the skin, or rubbing your eyes with a dirty hand, and an army of germs is setting up camp inside you.
Infections can be caused by many agents, including viruses, bacteria, and fungi. Once inside your body, these nasty germs do their best to survive and thrive, making you sick in the process. The illness means your body is trying to fight off germs by releasing white blood cells and antibodies. These same white blood cells can chemically trigger the fevers that often accompany an infection.
What's the difference between viral and bacterial infections
Typically, a viral infection produces multiple symptoms: a sore throat, runny nose, and congestion when you have a cold or flu; or nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea when you have a stomach bug or gastrointestinal infection. Viruses are typically not treated with antibiotics, since most of these drugs only work against bacteria. However, there are now some antiviral medications for certain viruses, such as influenza, HIV, hepatitis B, hepatitis C, and herpes.
Bacterial infections often produce pain. You may develop sharp pain in your ear or the area around it when you have an ear infection, or your throat will ache when you catch the streptococcus bacteria. Serious bacterial infections often cause symptoms throughout the body. Whatever the cause, a strong immune system may be all you need to rid yourself of a minor infection.
What are the most common signs of an infection?
The signs and symptoms of an infection vary, depending on the cause and which body part or parts are affected. Below are some signs and symptoms to watch for:
- Fever of 101 degrees Fahrenheit (oral thermometer reading)
- Chills and/or sweating
- Muscle ache or soreness
- Increased pain, tenderness, or irritation in the affected area
- Swelling and/or redness
- Loss of appetite
Staph skin infections are often marked by sudden lumps or bumps that are red, hot, itchy and/or painful to the touch. It's important to get any suspicious skin lump treated before it turns into a systemic infection.
Children may have high fevers that are a normal response to many childhood infections. However, infants under 3 months old have an immature immune system, and for them, any fever over 100.4 degrees F requires immediate attention from a health professional to rule out serious causes of infection. It is wise to call the doctor if your child has a fever over 102 F. Similarly, adults should also seek medical advice for persistent fevers or for a fever over 102 F.
Is there anything I can do to prevent repeat infections?
In general, washing your hands is the simplest and most effective way to prevent getting -- or transmitting -- germs. Experts recommend scrubbing vigorously with soap and water for at least 15 seconds, especially before cooking or eating, after going to the bathroom (or changing a diaper), and after coughing or sneezing. If it's not possible to wash your hands with soap and water, having an alcohol-based hand sanitizer available is a good back-up measure to help prevent the spread of germs. People who are around small children or seniors -- daycare workers or nursing-home employees -- should also take special care. Also avoid putting your fingers in your mouth, eyes, or nose.
To help fend off colds and other bugs, there are also precautions you can take to keep your immune system strong:
- Eat a healthy diet, including whole grains and five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables a day.
- Drink plenty of fluids.
- Get plenty of exercise and sleep.
- Don't smoke or use drugs, and go easy on the alcohol (a maximum of two drinks a day for men, one for women).
- Incorporate yoga, meditation, or another relaxation method into your daily routine to lessen stress, which can weaken the immune system.
- Get a flu shot each fall. If you have children, have them vaccinated against childhood diseases such as measles, mumps, and chicken pox.
- Don't share things that come into contact with other people's germs such as cups, pens, razors, and food.
When should I call the doctor?
Call your doctor if you notice any of these signs:
- For adults, a temperature of 103 degrees F or higher, or more than 102 degrees F with joint pain
- A temperature of 102 degrees F or higher in children older than 3 months
- A temperature of 100.4 degrees F or higher in children younger than 3 months
- A fever accompanied by a rash
- An animal or human bite that has broken the skin
- A wound that is longer than one-third of an inch and deeper than one-quarter inch, or has jagged edges, is near an eye, bleeds excessively, or has embedded foreign matter such as gravel that is hard to remove
- Sore throat
- Severe cough that disrupts sleep
- Pain or pressure in the chest
- A sudden lump or bump on the skin that's red, hot, pus-filled and itches or hurts when you touch it.
- Vomiting or diarrhea that doesn't go away after a few days
- Blood in stool or urine
- Difficulty speaking, seeing, swallowing, breathing, or moving
- Rapid heartbeat
No matter what kind of infection you have, you need to give your body a chance to heal. Rest, drink plenty of water, eat a healthy diet, and remember to stay away from cigarettes and alcohol.
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American Academy of Family Physicians. Colds and the Flu.
American Lung Association. Cold and Flu Guidelines.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Web site. Viral Gastroenteritis.
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