H E A L T H:
Germ: (n.) A disease-producing microorganism.

In other words, a thing too tiny to see that can make you sick.

These little critters come in two basic varieties. You've got your bacteria and you've got your viruses. What are they?


These guys are the oldest form of life on Earth and you need a microscope to see them. (So for a really long time they were affecting people and animals and nobody even knew they existed! Pretty sneaky.)

Bacteria are everywhere.

Some are good and some are not so good.

  • The Good Guys. Beneficial bacteria help make nitrogen and sulfur available to plants so the plants can grow and we can eat them and/or feed them to animals which we then eat. (You know, the ol' Food Chain.) Good bacteria live in your intestines and help you digest food. They are also important in the manufacture of food (i.e., yogurt, olive, cheese, pickles, buttermilk, ice cream) and life-saving drugs.
  • The Bad Guys. Some bacteria are harmful because they cause certain diseases and are responsible for food poisoning. Occasionally your body is a temporary home for "pathogens" (disease causing bacteria). These bacteria are harmful because they damage your body tissues. How? Either by directly attacking your cells or by releasing poisonous substances called "toxins."
    How do bad bacteria get in your body to begin with?
  • Through the air, in water, in food, by insects, or by direct human contact.

Here are some common bacterial diseases: Tuberculosis, diphtheria, scarlet fever, Lyme disease, typhus, cholera, whooping cough, bubonic plague. These diseases can be "fatal" (can cause death) but are all preventable.

The Good News: Advances in medicine and sanitation ("society cleaning up after itself") have freed people in industrialized countries from serious bacterial disease for the last 100 years.

The Bad News: Because of lack of education, money, and technology much of the world's population (often children) still get sick and die from these bacterial diseases.

How do we kill bad bacteria and stay healthy?

  • Filtering and purifying drinking water with chlorine (a chemical that kills bacteria)
  • Collecting sewage and removing pathogens before it is dumped into rivers or the ocean.
  • Heating food to high enough temperatures kills most bacteria and destroys their toxins.
  • Cooling food to a few degrees above freezing also prevents bacterial contamination. The bacteria is not killed by the cold, but their rate of growth is greatly slowed. (That's why food still goes bad in the fridge, if you leave it there long enough.)
  • Salmonella infections ("heavy duty food poisoning") can kill you. These are caused by food that's been left out of the refrigerator too long, allowing bacteria to grow.
  • Getting your "vaccinations" (You know... "shots"). Once you have been vaccinated against a certain bacteria, your immune system has defenses ready to destroy any live bacteria before they have a chance to make you ill. Most young children are vaccinated against diphtheria, whooping cough, and tetanus.

Before the 1940s, doctors had few treatments for bacterial disease. Whether a person recovered or died often depended more on the type of disease and the strength of the patient than on the efforts of the doctor. Then scientists discovered anti-bacterial drugs called antibiotics (penicillin was the first one). Antibiotics prevent bacteria from making new cell walls, so they die.

Today, antibiotics are used to treat everything from ear infections and "strep" throat to many STDs.


The word "virus" comes from the Latin word that means "poison." Viruses are small particles consisting of genetic material that invade cells. What makes them a real challenge for "immunologists" (doctors who research ways of preventing disease) is that they have the ability to change (mutate). (A vaccine that might work for a certain virus today, might not work for the "same" virus tomorrow because the virus isn't the same any more!)

Antibiotics which usually work great on bacteria have no effect on viruses. That's why there is no cure for the common cold... it's caused by a virus. (In fact, every cold you've ever had was actually caused by a different type of virus!)

Here are some common (and serious) viral infections: a cold, flu or influenza, AIDS, smallpox, measles, chicken pox, rubella (German measles), infectious hepatitis, polio, herpes, yellow fever.

Where do viruses come from?

  • From the air. Most viral disease are "airborne" (breathed in through the air). That's how you get a cold or flu.
  • From contaminated water. Some diseases, like infectious hepatitis and polio, can spread through contaminated water.
  • From insects. Mosquitoes carry viruses such as yellow fever and malaria.
  • From contaminated body fluids. With HIV/AIDS, the virus is transmitted through unprotected sexual contact.
  • From contaminated blood. The HIV/AIDS, virus can also be transmitted from one person to another by, contaminated hypodermic needles.

Is There Protection Against Viruses? Vaccination is the only effective defense against which remain unchanged. Polio and smallpox, once deadly diseases, have been virtually eliminated from the world by the discovery of vaccines.

  • There are still no vaccines for the common cold, or HIV (because HIV, cold and flu viruses change too often).

What Can You Do to Stay Healthy?

  • Get adequate rest and sleep. If your body is well-rested it does a better job of fighting infections.
  • Get all required immunizations. That means getting your "shots."
  • Eat a well balanced diet. The energy we get from good food makes our bodies better at fighting infections.
  • Get plenty of exercise. This makes you stronger, increases your energy level, and reduces stress. Three things that help your body fight off infections.
  • Manage your stress load. Stressed people have a harder time fighting infections.
  • Wash your hands frequently. Use lots of warm water and soap. Research says washing hands can cut down your colds by more than 50%. This is because we pick up germs on our hands whenever we shake hands with someone or touch surfaces with germs on them (which includes just about everything that people use). Then we infect ourselves by transferring the germs to our eyes, mouths, or things that go into our mouths, like food.
  • Avoid sick people. This is tricky, especially since some people are most contagious before they are having any disease symptoms.
  • Make friends. No kidding. Research shows that having a close circle of friends and family helps to keep you healthier!
  • Practice safe sex. The best way to prevent Sexually Transmitted Diseases and unwanted pregnancy.
  • Don't smoke. Cigarettes make you more likely to get lung infections.






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