Infection Control

An infection happens when a foreign organism enters a person’s body and causes harm.

The organism uses that person’s body to sustain itself, reproduce, and colonize. These infectious organisms are known as pathogens. Examples of pathogens include bacteria, viruses, fungi, and prions. Pathogens can multiply and adapt quickly.

Some infections are mild and barely noticeable, but others are severe and life-threatening, and some are resistant to treatment. Infection can be transmitted in a variety of ways.

These include skin contact, bodily fluids, contact with feces, airborne particles, and touching an object that an infected person has also touched. How an infection spreads and its effect on the human body depend on the type of agent.

The immune system is an effective barrier against infectious agents, but colonies of pathogens may grow too large for the immune system to fight. At this stage, infections become harmful.

Many pathogens give off toxins that trigger negative responses from the body.

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How Can Infection Spread?

Direct contact

An easy way to catch most infectious diseases is by coming in contact with a person or animal who has the infection. Three ways infectious diseases can be spread through direct contact are:

Person to person. A common way for infectious diseases to spread is through the direct transfer of bacteria, viruses or other germs from one person to another. This can occur when an individual with the bacterium or virus touches, kisses, or coughs or sneezes on someone who isn’t infected.

These 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.

Animal to person. 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 acquire a toxoplasmosis infection by scooping your cat’s litter box.
Mother to unborn child. A pregnant woman may pass germs that cause infectious diseases to her unborn baby. Some germs can pass through the placenta. Germs in the vagina can be transmitted to the baby during birth.

Indirect Contact

Disease-causing organisms also can be passed by indirect contact. Many germs can linger on an inanimate object, such as a tabletop, doorknob or faucet handle.

When you touch a doorknob handled by someone ill with the flu or a cold, for example, you can pick up the germs he or she left behind. If you then touch your eyes, mouth or nose before washing your hands, you may become infected.

Insect bites
Some germs rely on insect carriers — such as mosquitoes, fleas, lice or ticks — to move from host to host. These carriers are known as vectors. Mosquitoes can carry the malaria parasite or West Nile virus, and deer ticks may carry the bacterium that causes Lyme disease.

Food contamination
Another way disease-causing germs can infect you is through contaminated food and water. This mechanism of transmission allows germs to be spread to many people through a single source. E. coli, for example, is a bacterium present in or on certain foods — such as undercooked hamburger or unpasteurized fruit juice.

Prevention

Infectious agents can enter your body through:

  • Skin contact or injuries
  • Inhalation of airborne germs
  • Ingestion of contaminated food or water
  • Tick or mosquito bites
  • Sexual contact

Follow these tips to decrease your risk of infecting yourself or others:

Wash your hands. This is especially important before and after preparing food, before eating, and after using the toilet. And try not to touch your eyes, nose or mouth with your hands, as that’s a common way germs enter the body.

Get vaccinated. Immunization can drastically reduce your chances of contracting many diseases. Make sure to keep up to date on your recommended vaccinations, as well as your children’s.

Stay home when ill. Don’t go to work if you are vomiting, have diarrhea or have a fever. Don’t send your child to school if he or she has these signs and symptoms, either.

Prepare food safely. Keep counters and other kitchen surfaces clean when preparing meals. Cook foods to the proper temperature using a food thermometer to check for doneness. For ground meats, that means at least 160 F (71 C); for poultry, 165 F (74 C); and for most other meat, at least 145 F (63 C).

In addition, promptly refrigerate leftovers — don’t let cooked foods remain at room temperature for extended periods of time.

Practice safe sex. Always use condoms if you or your partner has a history of sexually transmitted infections or high-risk behavior.

Don’t share personal items. Use your own toothbrush, comb and razor. Avoid sharing drinking glasses or dining utensils.

Travel wisely. If you’re traveling out of the country, talk to your doctor about any special vaccinations — such as yellow fever, cholera, hepatitis A or B, or typhoid fever — you may need.

How to Wash Your Hands

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