Know Your Germs; Save Your Life

Germs. We talk about them all the time, but most of us don’t really know what they are or how they differ from one another.

When you consult with a physician about a germ-induced ailment, the first thing the doctor wants to determine is whether the infection is the result of a bacteria or a virus.

It is information that will determine whether to treat the condition with an over-the-counter medication or an antibiotic—and it is information that could save your life.

Germs—what do they look like?

“Germ” is a generic term for that class of living things called “microorganisms.” That is, they are alive—but you can’t see them (without magnification). This is the first thing to understand about germs.

Fact one: Germs are invisible.

Furthermore, germs are just about everywhere. They are on your kitchen counter, your shoes, in your car, in your hair, on your teeth, on the grocery store shopping cart handle. . . you got the drift. Just about any place is a good place for germs.

Fact two: Germs are everywhere.


99% of the bacteria you will ever meet will do you no harm. Some of these tiny, one-celled creatures are even essential to the functioning of your body. The L. acidophilus strain of bacteria, for instance, helps in food digestion—and may reduce your risk of heart disease. Yogurt is a popular source of L. acidophilus.

Some bacteria, though, are out to get you. Given the opportunity to thrive, they will create a cavity in your tooth, make your throat sore, give you a urinary tract infection or even cause pneumonia. Only 1% of bacteria are thugs, but you can’t see them to identify which is which. They don’t wear gang insignia.

What can you do to protect yourself and your family?

Bacteria feed off their environment. If you want to grow a colony of them, leave a donut on the counter.

To prevent bacterial infections, make sure to observe safe food-handling procedures and remove bacteria from contaminated surfaces with a good cleaning. In many situations it is also wise to employ an antibacterial agent that can not only move the germs to a different location (from counter to cleaning cloth), but kill them.

In a “fight fire with fire” sort of move, scientists use bacteria to produce drugs that kill bacteria. Antibiotics first came into widespread use in the 1940s—just in time to effectively battle an epidemic of tuberculosis—a disease that had killed more than a million Americans since the turn of the century.

Fact three: Antibacterial agents and antibiotics can kill bacteria. Safe food handling and proper cleaning of surfaces can keep bacteria from making you ill.

Antibiotics are effective against bacteria—but not against viruses. Viral infections are a whole different ballgame.

Bacteria or Virus?

Viruses are strange little units. They are smaller than bacteria and aren’t structured as a cell. Viruses are like creatures from outer space. They can be shaped like rods, balls with spikes, or polyhedrons. Most are submicroscopic—you have to use an electron microscope to see them. And they can be deadly.

Viral diseases you may have heard about include:

  • Herpes
  • Measles
  • Chickenpox
  • Hepatitis

Even the common cold is caused by a virus. That is why the doctor won’t prescribe antibiotics to fight it. Antibiotics only work on bacteria. By the way, influenza is a viral disease as well. The idea that antibiotics can be used for the flu is unfounded.

Antibiotics kill bacteria, but you need something like a microscopic Navy SEAL unit to wage war against viruses. It may be that many viruses are helpful (just like some bacteria), but there is much more we don’t know about viruses than we do know.

Fact four: Viruses do not respond to antibiotics. Viral infections are treated with specially designed antiviral drugs.

A Pound of Prevention

The primary means of protection against viruses is by vaccination. That topic, of course, opens up a whole new can of worms—with some people standing in line for every year’s new influenza shot and some avoiding vaccinations like they were the plague itself.

What about diet and exercise, though? Won’t staying in top physical condition help you ward off any viral attack?

No doubt about it, the healthier your immune system, the better chance you stand against viruses, but the best way to protect yourself is to not come in contact with it in the first place.

How do you do that?

Practice good hygiene: Wash your hands often, stay away from sick people, be monogamous, cover open wounds—use common sense.

Fact five: Viral infections may be prevented by maintaining a healthy immune system, the prudent use of vaccinations, and by sensible hygiene. But the best way to deal with viruses is to stay away from them.

The moral of the story

You can’t see germs, but they exist. Some can make you sick and some can help you stay healthy. The best you can do is endeavor to choose the ones you care to associate with and avoid the ones you don’t care to harbor.

Don’t stay home and fret (germs are there too). Learn about germs, purchase safe but effective cleaning products, get proper nutrition, then go on out there and enjoy your life. Just be sensible.

By James Gathany (CDC Public Health Image library ID 11162) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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  •  License: Creative Commons image source

Author, Casey Windsong, focuses on health and the environment. Health and home safety are two of Casey’s favorite topics.

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