Whether you’re a self proclaimed germaphobe, you’re about to have kids and want to know what’s what when it comes to germs or you’re just interested, let’s take a look at a beginner’s guide to germs.
5. Define your terms
When it comes to germs, unfortunately there’s a lot of misnomers floating about, so let’s sort that out first.
“Germ” in the correct sense of the word refers to micoorganisms, particularly pathogens. Taking a step back, a microorganism is a single celled or multicellular microscopic being. Pathogens simply refers to micoorganisms which play a role in causing disease.
Apart from plants and animals, micoorganisms form the 4 remaining classified kingdoms of living things. These kingdoms cover just about everything, including bacteria, fungi, protozoa and algae.
While many people incorrectly assume that viruses are alive, this is not the case – viruses and prions (pathogenic proteins causing diseases such as Mad Cow) are two of the few non-living causes of infectious disease.
4. Be aware of the “goodies” and “badies”
It’s important to realise that the world is teeming with germs, and if it weren’t, most life would cease to exist. That’s because not all microorganisms are bad – many of them are totally essential for life.
If you’ve seen probiotic pills or yoghurt in the supermarket, you might have asked yourself why on earth people would want to eat bacteria. The answer is that 1-3% of your body weight is accounted for by microorganisms living on your skin and mucous membranes, particularly in the digestive tract.
While your body is full of these “good” microorganisms (aka your microflora), certain circumstances (e.g. pregnancy, stress, antibiotics) can lead to excessive population spikes, causing diseases such as thrush. The majority of disease however, is caused by pathogenic organisms with no helpful functions.
3. The big ‘R’ (Resistance)
Drug resistance is a growing issue in medicine, as it has the potential for current medicines to become ineffective in treating illnesses as simple as pneumonia, with life threatening consequences.
Multi Drug Resistant Organisms (MDROs) are the result of abuse of medical drugs, fostered by misinformation. Leading causes of antimicrobial resistance include misuse of antibiotics (e.g. not using the whole course, taking antibiotics for a viral infection), use of broad spectrum drugs rather than targeted medicines and even household use of antibacterial soaps.
All of these actions lead to a small population of microorganisms surviving because they are the most resistant to the drug, allowing them to pass on resistance to future populations.
2. Germs and Kids
While it’s extremely important to teach kids proper hygiene to avoid contact with disease causing microorganisms, it’s also important not to put your kids in a “germ free” bubble.
The development of some auto-immune diseases such as asthma, where the body’s immune defense does itself harm, are believed to be influenced by exceedingly sterile conditions.
So while it’s not a great idea to have someone with the flu sneezing into the pram, it’s important to remember that exposure to everyday germs is an important part of building the immune system up to full strength.
1. It’s in the water
While most travellers are thinking about how safe the water is to drink, it’s important to realise that food and water are key sources of disease causing organisms even in well developed countries.
With a bit of common sense, it’s easy to avoid any potential nasties.
The best pieces of advice are stacking your fridge correctly, regularly replacing plastic chopping boards and sponges, adequately cooking meat and knowing what foods to avoid when pregnant or otherwise immunocompromised.