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Germs: You Can’t See Them, But They’re Everywhere
Posted 7/23/20 12:25:03 PM by Emily Pazel

Were you ever worried as a young child that your classmate had “cooties” and he or she could pass them onto you by giving you a hug or touching your hand? Although “cooties” is a made-up, fictitious way of describing imaginary childhood germs, it’s a concept that we learn as young children about keeping our hands to ourselves to slow the spread of germs around us.

Unfortunately, for all the germaphobes out there, germs are everywhere. And when we say everywhere, that’s exactly what we mean – they are in the air, on food, plants and animals, in the soil and water and just about every surface, including your own body. The good news, however, is that most germs can’t harm you because your immune system does a great job of fighting them off and protecting you against most infectious agents. However, there are some occurrences where germs can get tricky and mutate into something your body can’t handle, which can cause you to get sick. 

Before we get into how germs spread from you onto everything you touch, let’s first talk about what exactly germs are made of and how they affect us. 

What are germs?

Germs, in a general sense, are infectious agents that come in many shapes and sizes including bacteria, viruses, fungi, protozoans and helminths. And although mostly harmless, you should consult a doctor if you have an infection and have experienced an animal or human bite, you have difficulty breathing, a cough lasting longer than a week, periods of rapid heartbeat, a rash, swelling, blurred vision, persistent vomiting or an unusual or severe headache. 

Let’s dive into the different types of infectious agents, according to Mayo Clinic, that you could potentially encounter:

  • Bacteria: There’s good bacteria and then there’s not so good bacteria, but no matter the case, bacteria are one-celled organisms that are so small they can only been seen with a microscope; in fact, if you lined up a thousand of them end to end, they could fit across the end of a pencil eraser; unfortunately, many disease-causing bacteria produce toxins that can damage cells and make you ill from infections, causing strep throat, tuberculosis and urinary tract infections
  • Viruses: Although viruses are much smaller than cells, they invade the cells in your body to reproduce and hijack the way the cell works, ultimately causing a disease. Viruses cause many disease, such as AIDS, the common cold, Ebola virus, Genital herpes, Influenza, Measles, Chickenpox and the most recent, the Coronavirus
  • Fungi: Varieties of fungi come in many different forms; during everyday life, we eat mushrooms on pizzas or other favorite dishes, molds that form in cheeses and even yeast that is a necessary ingredient in most types of breads; however, some fungi such as Candida can cause infections such a thrush, which is an infection of the mouth and throat found in infants and people taking antibiotics or who have impaired immune systems; fungi are also known for creating skin conditions such as athlete’s foot and ringworm
  • Protozoans: These are single-celled organisms that behave like tiny animals, hunting and gathering other microbes for food; while many are harmless and live in your intestinal tract, some can cause diseases such as Giardia, Malaria and Toxoplasmosis
  • Helminthes: Among the larger parasites, Helminthes, derive from the word meaning worm, and can enter your body and take up residence in your intestinal tract, lungs, liver, skin or brain; some common types include tapeworms and roundworms

Although many can mistake an infection versus a disease, they are two different things. When someone gets an infection, this is typically the first step when bacteria, viruses or other microbes that cause disease enter your body and begin to multiply. Once the cells in your body are damaged, this causes a disease to occur and signs and symptoms of an illness begin to appear. 

So, now that we have a general understanding of what infectious agents or germs are, we can now continue on with our lesson on how they spread and what we can do to help prevent them from spreading.  

How do germs spread?

Germs don’t move themselves. Instead, germs or infectious agents rely on people, the environment and surfaces to move around and spread. 

According to NY Requirement’s Course on Infection Control and Barrier Precautions, these infectious agents are spread through two ways, contact and airborne transmission. 

Contact transmission:

  • Direct contact: Person-to-person
  • Indirect contact: Usually contact with a harmless inanimate object. The infected inanimate object is called a fomite. Fomites can survive on objects and surfaces for a long time and be a potential source of infection for weeks and months, e.g., fomites containing norovirus and Clostridium difficile
  • Droplet contact: Large particles from coughing, sneezing or talking. Droplets move through the air, but because of their size and the limited time they are airborne, they quickly settle on environmental surfaces and are spread by contact, e.g., influenza, not by inhalation

Airborne transmission:

  • Droplet nuclei: Residue of evaporated droplets that remain suspended in the air. Pathogens spread by airborne transmission include Mycobacterium tuberculosis and Varicella
  • Dust: Particles in the air containing the infectious agents

Although we’ve learned that germs don’t spread themselves and that we are big proponents in helping them spread, there are ways that we can effectively help slow the spread of germs, especially under circumstances like we found ourselves in today with a global pandemic. 

If you’re a healthcare professional, there are standard precaution strategies that you can follow to protect yourself, as well as the patients and staff around you. It’s important to realize that while working in a healthcare setting, you should take into consideration that all body fluids and secretions should be handled as potentially infectious, and barrier precautions should be used routinely to protect from all sources of potential infection. 

For healthcare professionals, the standard precautions boil down to having six basic elements: hand washing, the use of personal protective equipment, safe and proper disposal of contaminated material and equipment, safe injection practices, Respiratory Hygiene/Cough Etiquette practices and the use of masks for insertion of catheters or injections into spinal or epidural spaces via lumbar puncture. 

Hand washing, according to NY Requirements, is one of the most effective methods for preventing patient-to-patient, patient-to-staff and staff-to-patient transmission of microorganisms, and happens to be one of the foundations of infection control. Washing your hands with soap and water is a sensible strategy for hand hygiene in non-healthcare settings as well, and is recommended by the CDC and other experts as an efficient way to help slow the spread of germs. 

Where do germs live in your home?

While it’s important to be safe at work, where the spread of germs may be common, it’s also important to look deep inside your home where germs may be lingering where you least expect them and keep those surfaces clean. 

According to the National Sanitation Foundation, germs are most commonly found in areas where food is stored or prepared, making the kitchen ground zero for the most germs found in the house. In fact, more than 75 percent of dish sponges and rags can contain salmonella, E. coli, and fecal matter compared to 9 percent on bathroom faucet handles. It’s important to clean kitchen items that get used frequently or come into contact with uncooked and unwashed foods, such as cutting boards, coffee maker, refrigerator, kitchen sink and countertops.

Other areas of your house that can contain a high amount of germs include knobs, handles and switches, your makeup bag, the bathroom, the laundry machine, your home office and living room, and lastly, pets, which can bring germs and bacteria into your home and need their food dishes cleaned regularly. 

So, now that you know there are germs and infectious agents surrounding you at all times throughout your life, you can sleep more peacefully at night, right? Just kidding! However, you should know that there are ways to slow the spread of germs and keeping yourself and your surrounding areas clean are a great way to help prevent illnesses that bad bacteria, viruses, etc. may cause.