What Is an Infectious Disease?
Infectious diseases is an umbrella term for an array of disorders caused by various organisms, such as viruses, bacteria, fungi or parasite. Though your body is full of various organisms, this is not always a bad thing. Most are harmless, and many are actually helpful. Just think about all the beneficial bacteria in your gut helping to balance your microbiome. Some of these organisms, however, are harmful and may cause disease. There are many forms of infectious diseases, some are mild, while others can turn life-threatening. Symptoms, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention may depend on the condition.
Symptoms of Infectious Diseases
Signs and symptoms vary greatly by each infectious disease. Chickenpox comes with specific rashes and blisters, strep throat comes with a sore throat, dengue fever causes joint pain and pain behind the eyes, and hepatitis may be accompanied by a yellowish skin.
General signs of most infectious diseases include:
- Muscle pains
When to See a Doctor
If you develop signs of an infectious disease or you believe that you are at risk, seek medical attention. Visit your doctor if you:
- Prolonged or unexplained fever
- Severe headache with a fever
- Trouble breathing
- Rashes or swelling
- Coughing for over a week
- Sudden problems with your vision
- Been bitten by an animal
What Causes An Infectious Diseases?
- Bacteria: Bacteria is a unicellular microorganism. Infectious diseases caused by bacteria include urinary tract infections, strep throat, and tuberculosis.
- Viruses: Viruses are tiny infective agents that reproduce inside living cells. Infectious diseases caused by viruses include the flu, common colds, and AIDS.
- Fungi: Fungi are living organisms that can cause disease in various parts of the body. Infectious diseases caused by fungi include athlete’s foot, ringworm, yeast infections, and infections in the lungs or nervous system.
- Parasites: Parasites live and feed on another organism. Infectious diseases that are caused by parasites included malaria, giardiasis, and toxoplasmosis. Some are spread to mosquito bites (eg. malaria), others can be transmitted from animal feces (eg. toxoplasmosis).
Diagnosis and Treatment
Diagnosis usually involves lab tests, such as blood and urine test, throat swabs, stool sample, and spinal tap. In some cases, imaging (eg. x-rays) and biopsies are involved as well.
Treatment may involve antibiotics, antivirals antifungals, antiparasitics, and natural remedies, such as rest, drinking more water, herbs, vitamins, minerals, superfoods, and teas.
How Are Infectious Disease Spread?
- Direct Contact: Some diseases, like the flu or strep throat, can spread from person to person through coughs, sneezes, touch, and kisses. Sexually transmitted diseases pass through the exchange of body fluid through sexual contact sometimes even when symptoms are not present. Other infections, such as rabies, may be spread to a person by the scratch or bite of an animal. Others, such as toxoplasmosis may be spread through animal feces. Certain diseases, such as STDs can be passed from the mother to her unborn child through the placenta or during childbirth through the vagina.
- Indirect Contact: Since germs hang around everywhere from tabletops to doorknobs, from faucet handles to office supplies, some infectious diseases, such as colds and the flu can be caught through indirect contact.
- Insect Bites: Many infectious diseases spread through the bite of animals, such as mosquitos, fleas, lice, and ticks, that carry the infection. Certain mosquitoes carry the West Nile virus, dengue virus, and malaria parasite. Some ticks carry the Lyme disease-causing bacterium.
- Food Contaminations: Certain infectious diseases, such as E. coli spread through contaminated food or water.
Am I At Risk of an Infectious Disease?
Nobody is completely protected from infectious diseases, but some people with a compromised immune system are at more risk. Your risk is higher of an infectious disease if:
- You have HIV or AIDS
- You are taking steroids or other immune system suppressing medications, such as anti-rejection drugs for organ transplant
- You have a certain type of cancer, such as leukemia or lymphoma that affect your immune system
- You have a certain type of disorders, such as lupus or IBD that affect your immune system
- You have certain other conditions, such as malnutrition, prolonged medication, and implanted medical devices that make you more vulnerable to infections
Complications of Infectious Diseases
Most infectious diseases resolve with minimal or no complications. Some infectious diseases, such as meningitis, pneumonia, and AIDS can turn into life-threatening conditions and can potentially lead to death. Other infectious diseases are increasing your risk of specific cancer. For example, Hepatitis B and C can lead to liver cancer and HPV has been linked to cervical cancer. Other infectious diseases may reappear after decades of silence, such as chickenpox which can reappear as shingles later in life.
Preventing Infectious Diseases
Since various infectious diseases can enter your body through various ways, such as skin contact, ingestion, inhalation, bites, injuries, and sexual contact, it is important to think about your entire body to prevent infections
- Wash Your Hands. Wash your hands often throughout the day, especially when after using the toilet, before eating, and before and after of preparing and handling food. If you cannot wash your hands, you can use hand sanitizer instead. Avoid touching your mouth, eyes, and nose.
- Get Vaccinated. Immunization can drastically lower your chances of certain infectious diseases, such as chicken pox, mumps, and whooping cough. Talk to your doctor to learn about recommended vaccines. Make sure to keep up-to-date on your vaccinations as well as your children’s vaccinations.
- Stay Home. When you are sick with a fever, vomiting, diarrhea, and serious respiratory conditions, stay home from work and keep your children home from school to avoid infecting others.
- Eat Safe Food. Prepare your food safely. Keep your kitchen clean, wash your food, and cook at proper temperatures. Do not leave your food out too long, especially when the air temperature is hot. Put your leftover in your fridge as soon as possible. When eating out, make sure the place is clean and your food seems well cooked.
- Protect Yourself from Bug Bites. Use bug sprays and repellents (yes, the natural varieties are great too!) and wear long sleeves, long pants, and closed shoes when wandering out into nature. Always check for ticks when coming home.
- Practice Safe Sex. Use condoms, get tested for STDs regularly and avoid high-risk behavior.
- Travel Smart. When traveling outside of the country, travel vaccinations, such as cholera, hepatitis A or B, typhoid fever, and yellow fever, are important. Talk to you travel clinic to see what vaccinations are recommended for your trip. Depending on your destination, washing your hands more carefully, avoiding tap water, and being more careful with food may be important.
For information on more specific infectious diseases, see the articles listed above.