The term "germs" refers to the microscopic bacteria,
viruses, fungi, and protozoa that can cause disease.
is the single most important thing your family can do to prevent
germs from leading to infections and sickness.
Types of Germs
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. But bacteria can cause trouble, too, like
urinary tract infections
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, germs in infected bodily
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
, as well as extremely serious diseases like smallpox or
are multi-celled, plant-like organisms that usually aren't
dangerous in a healthy person. Fungi get nutrition from plants,
food, and animals in damp, warm environments. Two common fungal
infections are athlete's foot and yeast infections. People who
have weakened immune systems (from diseases like HIV or cancer) may
develop more serious fungal infections.
are, like bacteria, one-celled organisms. Protozoa love moisture,
so intestinal infections and other diseases they cause are often
spread through contaminated water.
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, most will produce
waste products, known as
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
, increased heart rate, 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)
Protection From Germs
Because most germs are spread through the air in sneezes or
coughs or through bodily fluids like sweat, saliva, semen, vaginal
fluid, or blood, your best bet is to limit contact with those
substances, as far as possible.
Washing your hands, and 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, 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 10 seconds (away from the water). You may want to sing a
short song - try "Happy Birthday" - during the process to
make sure you 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
- use separate cutting boards, utensils, and towels for preparing
uncooked meat and poultry; and warm, soapy water to clean utensils
Periodically 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 adequate for cleaning. If you want
something stronger, you may want to try an antibacterial soap. It
may not kill all the germs that can lead to sickness but it can
reduce the amount of bacteria on an object. You can also use bleach
or a diluted solution that contains bleach, but you may want to use
soap and water afterwards so that the strong smell doesn't
irritate your child'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
, especially if you'll be traveling to countries outside the
United States. 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
prevent infection because viruses, bacteria, fungi, and protozoa
can be spread via oral, anal, or vaginal contact. Also, all teens
should be vaccinated against
. 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.
With a little prevention, you can keep harmful germs out of your
Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: September 2008
Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice,
diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
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