The term "germs" refers to the microscopic bacteria, viruses, fungi, and protozoa that can cause disease.
Washing hands well and often is the single most important thing your family can do to prevent germs from leading to infections and sickness.
Bacteria are tiny, single-celled organisms that get nutrients from their environments. In some cases, that environment is your child or some other living being.
Some bacteria are good for our bodies — they help keep the digestive system in working order and keep harmful bacteria from moving in. Some bacteria are used to produce medicines and vaccines.
Viruses can't survive, grow, and reproduce unless a person or an animal puts up rental space. Viruses can only live for a very short time outside other living cells. For example, viruses in infected body fluids left on surfaces like a countertop or toilet seat can live there for a short time, but quickly die unless a live host comes along.
Once they've moved into someone's body, though, viruses spread easily and can make a person sick. Viruses are responsible for some minor sicknesses like colds, common illnesses like the flu, and extremely serious diseases like smallpox or HIV/AIDS.
Antibiotics are not effective against viruses. Antiviral agents have been developed against a small, select group of viruses.
Fungi are multi-celled, plant-like organisms. They get nutrition from plants, food, and animals in damp, warm environments.
Many, such as athlete's foot and yeast infections, are not dangerous in a healthy person. People who have weakened immune systems (from diseases like HIV or cancer), though, may develop more serious fungal infections.
Protozoa are, like bacteria, one-celled organisms and many are able to move on their own. Protozoa love moisture, so intestinal infections and other diseases they cause are often spread through contaminated water. Some are also encapsulated in cysts, which help them live outside the human body and in harsh environments for long periods of time.
Once organisms like bacteria, viruses, fungi, and protozoa invade a body, they get ready to stay for a while. These germs draw all their energy from the host. They may damage or destroy healthy cells. As they use up your nutrients and energy, they may produce proteins known as toxins.
Some toxins cause the annoying symptoms of common colds or flu-like infections, such as sniffles, sneezing, coughing, and diarrhea.
But other toxins can cause high fever, increased heart rate, low blood pressure, a generalized inflammatory response in the body, and even life-threatening illness.
If a child isn't feeling well, the doctor may take blood tests, throat cultures, or urine samples to determine which germs (if any) are responsible.
Most germs are spread through the air in sneezes or coughs or through body fluids like sweat, saliva, semen, vaginal fluid, or blood. So limiting contact with those substances, as far as possible, is our best protection against germs.
Teaching kids the importance of hand washing is absolutely the best way to stop germs from causing sickness. It's especially important after coughing or nose blowing, after using the bathroom, before preparing or eating food, after touching any pets or animals, after gardening, and before and after visiting a sick relative or friend.
There's a right way to wash hands, too. Use warm water and plenty of soap, then rub your hands together vigorously for at least 15 seconds (away from the water). Kids can sing a short song — try "Happy Birthday" — during the process to make sure they spend enough time washing. Rinse your hands and finish by drying them thoroughly on a clean towel.
When working in the kitchen, wash your hands before you eat or prepare food, and make sure that kids do the same. Use proper food-handling techniques — use separate cutting boards, utensils, and towels for preparing uncooked meat and poultry; and warm, soapy water to clean utensils and countertops.
Cleaning household surfaces well is also important. Wipe down frequently handled objects around the house, such as toys, doorknobs, light switches, sink fixtures, and flushing handles on the toilets.
Soap and water are perfectly fine for cleaning. If you want something stronger, you can try an antibacterial cleanser. It may not kill all the germs that can lead to sickness, but it can reduce the amount of bacteria on an object.
You also can use bleach or a diluted solution that contains bleach, but you may want to use soap and water afterward so that the strong smell doesn't irritate anyone's nose.
It's generally safe to use any cleaning agent that's sold in stores but try to avoid using multiple cleaning agents or chemical sprays on a single object because the mix of chemicals can irritate skin and eyes.
Another way to fight infections from germs is to make sure your family has the right immunizations, especially if you'll be traveling to countries outside the United States. Be sure to check with your doctor before travel and make sure you have taken the necessary precautions because different infections are prominent in different countries and often have seasonal variation.
Other yearly immunizations such as the flu vaccine are a good idea, especially if someone in your family has a weakened immune system or other chronic medical problems.
Teens who are sexually active should understand that condoms can help prevent infection because viruses, bacteria, fungi, and protozoa can be spread via oral, anal, or vaginal contact.
Also, all teens should be vaccinated against hepatitis B. This disease is often transmitted through sexual activity but people also can get it from contaminated needles, such as those used for tattooing or drugs.
Human papillomavirus (HPV) is one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and causes genital warts. The HPV vaccine is approved for use in both males and females.
Be sure to talk to your doctor if you have any questions. With a little prevention, you can keep harmful germs out of your family's way!
Reviewed by: Yamini Durani, MD
Date reviewed: April 2011
|Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) The CDC (the national public health institute of the United States) promotes health and quality of life by preventing and controlling disease, injury, and disability.|
|CDC: Vaccines & Immunizations The CDC's site has information on vaccines, including immunization schedules, recommendations, FAQs, and more.|
|Immunization Action Coalition This organization is a source of childhood, adolescent, and adult immunization information as well as hepatitis B educational materials.|
|CDC: Travelers' Health Look up vaccination requirements for travel destinations, get updates on international outbreaks, and more, searachable by country.|
|Hand Washing Did you know that the most important thing you can do to keep from getting sick is to wash your hands? If you don't wash your hands frequently, you can pick up germs from other sources and then infect yourself.|
|Why Should I Care About Germs? Germs are tiny organisms that can cause disease - and they're so small that they can creep into your system without you noticing. Find out how to protect yourself.|
|Food Poisoning Did you ever eat something that made you feel ooky? It might have been food poisoning.|
|Coxsackievirus Infections Coxsackievirus infections can spread from person to person. In most cases, the viruses cause mild flu-like symptoms, but can lead to more serious infections.|
|Campylobacter Infections These bacterial infections can cause diarrhea, cramping, abdominal pain, and fever. Good hand-washing and food safety habits can prevent them.|
|E. Coli E. coli is a common type of bacteria that can make you pretty sick. Read more in this article for kids.|
|Diarrhea Most kids battle diarrhea from time to time, so it's important to know what to do to relieve and even prevent it.|
|How Can I Wash My Hands Without Spreading Germs? Find out what the experts have to say.|
|Shigella Infections Shigella are bacteria that can infect the digestive tract and cause a wide range of symptoms, from diarrhea, cramping, vomiting, and nausea, to more serious complications and illnesses.|
|What Are Germs? You know they can hurt you, but what are these invisible creatures? Find out in this article for kids.|
|Staph Infections Staph bacteria can live harmlessly on many skin surfaces. But the bacteria can get into wounds and cause an infection. Get the details in this article for teens.|
|Why Do I Need to Wash My Hands? Washing your hands is the best way to stop germs from spreading. Learn all about the best way to wash your hands in this article for kids.|
|Why Is Hand Washing So Important? Did you know that proper hand washing is the best way to keep from getting sick? Here's how to teach this all-important habit to your kids.|
|Listeria Infections Listeriosis, a serious infection caused by eating food contaminated with a bacterium, primarily affects pregnant women, newborns, and adults with weakened immune systems. Some simple precautions can protect your family from infection.|
|MRSA MRSA is a type of bacteria that the usual antibiotics can't tackle anymore. The good news is that there are some simple ways to protect yourself from being infected. Find out how.|
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