An incalculable number of bacteria and other microorganisms live in the places we work, play, and travel. They even cover our skin and live in our intestines! Most of these, however, are effectively harmless to us. Some are actually beneficial.
So What's the Difference?
The difference between these and an infectious disease is where and how they live. An infectious disease means a foreign organism is living inside the body where it shouldn't, causing damage to the body's cells. These pathogens (disease-causing agents, such as bacteria or a virus) try to feed on cell nutrients, destroy body tissue, or even hijack cells to spread the infection.
Infectious diseases range from the common cold (many strains of generally milder pathogens) to more severe conditions like Hansen's disease (leprosy) or HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus). Many infectious diseases are contagious or capable of spreading between hosts.
Contagious infections are spread through methods like touch, particles in the air from sneezes and coughs, body fluids such as blood, or eating contaminated food. Different pathogens thrive under different conditions.
Who's at Risk?
Anyone can be infected by a pathogen, but infections are more likely and more concerning in those with a weaker body or immune system. People with greater risks for infectious diseases include:
- Infants, especially newborns and premature babies
- Patients with an immune system weakened by other medical issues, such as immune disorders or receiving an organ transplant
- Patients with chronic/genetic diseases like cystic fibrosis or asthma
- Unvaccinated individuals (specifically at higher risk for commonly vaccinated diseases)
For people with pre-existing medical concerns, getting sick can be dangerous. A common cold that is a minor inconvenience for a healthy individual can put someone with a chronic disease in the hospital. Do you know how to help keep yourself and your community healthy?
Reduce Your Risk
The first thing you can do to reduce the spread of pathogens is to wash your hands. Wash your hands after using the toilet and before touching your face or food. In fact, it is a good idea to avoid touching your face as much as possible. You should also wash your hands more frequently around people who are sick. Antibacterial hand sanitizers are not ideal for everyday use like hand washing is, but they are a useful tool for keeping high-risk environments (such as hospitals, or the homes of chronically ill patients) safe.
If you have a compromised immune system, it may be wise to wear a protective mask during flu season or in crowded areas. The reverse is also true: you can help prevent the spread of illness by wearing a mask in crowded places when you are sick. Choose a mask that is designed for medical use, which typically has a blue side and a white filter side.
Vaccines and flu shots can keep you from catching (and then spreading) some of the more dangerous infections, like tuberculosis. An otherwise healthy lifestyle will boost your immune system, as well. Make sure you get enough sleep, hydration, exercise, and nutrition to help your body stay at its strongest.