By Kathy Hubbard
“You won’t catch it,” he said just before he went into one of those coughing spells that sounded like his lungs were full of wet cement and made me instinctively move backward with my hand over my nose and mouth. “It’s just an allergy.” Famous last words, no?
Although, thankfully, not his last words, he did have pneumonia which is on the list of infectious diseases somewhere between rubella and sexually transmitted diseases that include viral hepatitis, influenza, measles, mumps, chronic sinusitis, whooping cough and a whole bunch more that are less common and harder to pronounce much less spell.
Infectious diseases are caused by organisms such as bacteria, viruses, fungi, or parasites, which mostly live happily in our bodies, are generally harmless, and are often helpful. But, under certain conditions, some organisms may cause disease.
Bacteria are one-cell organisms that are responsible for illnesses such as strep throat, urinary tract infections, and tuberculosis. Viruses are smaller than bacteria and cause a multitude of diseases ranging from the common cold to AIDS.
Fungi cause many skin diseases such as ringworm and athlete’s foot, and there are other types of fungi that can infect your lungs or your nervous system.
Then there are parasites. “Malaria is caused by a tiny parasite that is transmitted by a mosquito bite,” Mayo Clinic says. And, there are other parasites that can be transmitted to humans from animal feces.
We’re all familiar with the fact that viruses and bacteria can be spread when an infected person comes in contact with someone who isn’t. That’s when a kiss isn’t just a kiss, and a sneeze is just disgusting.
“Germs can also spread through the exchange of body fluids from sexual contact. The person who passes the germ may have no symptoms of the disease but may simply be a carrier,” Mayo says.
“Being bitten or scratched by an infected animal – even a pet – can make you sick and, in extreme circumstances, can be fatal. Handling animal waste can be hazardous, too. For example, you can get a toxoplasmosis infection by scooping your cat’s litter box.”
What’s toxoplasmosis? “One of the world’s most common parasites, infection usually occurs by eating undercooked contaminated meat, exposure from infected cat feces, or mother-to-child transmission during pregnancy.” Oh.
And while we’re on mother-to-child, there are other infectious diseases a pregnant woman can pass on to her unborn child since germs can pass through the placenta. Germs in the vagina can be transmitted to the baby during birth and through the mother’s breast milk.
We all know that germs can hang out on inanimate objects like a tabletop, doorknob, or faucet handle. We should all wash our hands after touching anything or anyone who may be infected.
“This is especially important before and after preparing food, before eating, and after using the toilet,” Mayo says.
Some germs rely on insects to do their spreading. Mosquitoes can carry the malaria parasite, West Nile, and Zika viruses, and deer ticks may carry the bacterium that causes Lyme disease.
Not to be left out are disease-carrying germs that we get from food. You know, E. coli, salmonella, botulinum toxin (the bacterium that causes botulism), and others.
Mayo suggests that you see your primary care provider if you’ve been bitten by an animal; are having trouble breathing; have been coughing for more than a week; have a severe headache with fever; experience a rash or swelling; have unexplained or prolonged fever, or have sudden vision problems. I’ll add that you should also seek medical care if you think you may have a food-borne illness that causes diarrhea, vomiting or both.
As for prevention, besides hand washing, I’ll never get off of my soap-box about vaccinations. Your chances of contracting so many diseases are drastically reduced if your vaccinations are up-to-date.
Stay home when you’re ill and don’t send your children to school if they’re vomiting, have diarrhea, or have a fever.
Keep counters, and other kitchen surfaces clean when preparing meals. Cook foods to their proper temperatures and refrigerate leftovers promptly.
Don’t share personal items like toothbrushes, combs, or razors. Don’t share drinking glasses or utensils — practice safe sex. And, before you travel outside the country, check on any special vaccinations you may need.
Kathy Hubbard is a member of Bonner General Health Foundation Advisory Council. She can be reached at email@example.com.