The multi-year fight against COVID-19 has many Americans more in tune with their health. Between wearing masks and practicing frequent hand washing, people are learning how simple behavioral changes and preparations can help with infection prevention.
We’re highlighting the importance of infection prevention and how individuals like yourself can play a role in eliminating the spread of harmful germs.
How is infection spread?
The world is full of microscopic organisms (pathogens), more commonly referred to as germs. You may not be able to see them, but germs are everywhere — they can be in the air you breathe, the dirt you walk on, the water you drink and the surfaces you touch. Some germs serve a purpose, such as good bacteria found in the intestines, but many germs are harmful.
There are four kinds of germs: bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites. Bacteria and viruses are the most common causes of infection, spreading to various parts of the body to produce various symptoms.
The process in which germs cause an infection involves three steps. First, there must be a host — a source for the germs to live. This could be human skin or a doorknob to the restroom. Next, there must be a person for the germs to attach to and enter the body. Finally, there needs to be transmission. Germs can infect you through your nose, mouth, ears and other openings.
Transmission can occur through contact, droplets, airborne particles and skin punctures.
Contact can occur by touching someone (direct) or something (indirect) infected with the pathogen that contains germs. For example, an infected person could indirectly touch a hand railing, which can be transmitted to you if you touch your mouth or nose after encountering the germs. Sexual contact is an example of direct contact. Germs can move from host to host through bodily fluids. Direct contact can occur with animals or insects infected with a virus, bacteria or parasite. It can also come from ingesting contaminated food (food poisoning).
Droplets are the primary way COVID-19 has spread throughout the world. Sneezing or coughing produces droplets that linger in the air long enough for another person close by to inhale them — yet not strong enough to travel far. The droplets can only be transmitted within a short distance, which is why the CDC came out with its social distancing guidelines of six feet. The flu also spreads via droplets. Other examples include whooping cough (pertussis) and meningitis.
Smaller airborne particles can travel farther distances than droplets to infect people. Tuberculosis and rubella (German measles) are two examples of infectious diseases that are transmitted through the air.
Most of these infections come in health care settings where germs spread through a skin puncture via a needle or contaminated object. This is also how hepatitis and HIV spreads through drug users who share needles.
How to prevent infection
Hand hygiene is the most effective way to prevent virus infection, according to the CDC. Wash your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Make sure you scrub the back of your hands, between your fingers and under your nails as pesky germs can live on any of these surfaces.
How often should you wash your hands? The CDC recommends having clean hands before, during and after you prepare food and before eating. Of course, you should also wash your hands after using the restroom or after coughing or sneezing into your hands. Beyond that, here are several other ways to prevent infection, many of which you can practice yourself.
Hospitals and doctors’ offices are full of sick patients who carry various pathogens, making them easily spreadable.
In these cases, an infected person spreads germs on surfaces or from medical staff who don’t wipe down and disinfect equipment properly. Simple things such as keeping hospital rooms clean and following safe injection practices can help prevent the spread of diseases in health care settings.
Food safety hygiene
Foodborne-pathogens such as salmonella, toxoplasmosis and E. coli spread through contaminated foods that aren’t cleaned or cooked thoroughly.
To prevent infection, wash your hands before and after handling raw meat. Wipe down any countertops or equipment that touches raw meat. Cook steaks to 145 F, ground meat to 160 F and poultry to 165 F.
Defrost foods overnight instead of letting them soak in water. You also shouldn’t leave meat out on the counter for more than an hour or so to prevent bacteria from forming.
Taking travel precautions
Vacations to tropical islands or far-away places can bring immense relaxation, but they also increase your risk of contracting insect- and water-borne pathogens. Depending on where you travel, insects can carry deadly infections such as malaria and yellow fever. Bring insect repellent that contains DEET (diethyltoluamide) to repel bites.
Vaccines can also help fight infections depending on which countries you plan to travel to. For example, your doctor will recommend the typhoid vaccine if you plan on traveling to developing countries, such as parts of Africa or Asia, or the Japanese encephalitis vaccine if you plan on traveling to Asia.
You can do your own part while traveling in foreign countries by not consuming local drinking water. The same goes for ice. Stick to bottled drinks. Boil any tap water if bottled water isn’t available for consumption. Avoid uncooked vegetables and fruit, unless you can peel it yourself.
Practice safe sexual health
One in five Americans have a sexually transmitted infection (STI) due to sexual activity throughout their life. Abstinence is the best way to prevent STIs. However, if you choose to have sexual partners, there are measures you can take to protect yourself.
For starters, make sure you or your partner wears a condom during intercourse. Reduce the number of partners you have and maintain a mutually monogamous relationship. People who have one partner for a long period of time are at a lower risk of contracting an STI.
People who are sexually active and have multiple partners should get tested for STIs once a year. Screenings are one of the main ways to prevent the spread of sexually related diseases. You should also receive vaccines for HPV and hepatitis B. The HPV vaccine can prevent certain cancers in both men and women.
Fending off mosquitos and ticks
Ticks and mosquitoes, which carry bacteria, parasites or viruses, have been responsible for many epidemics in recent memory.
It’s easy to associate insects with disease-causing incidents in foreign countries, but they also impact the U.S. Lyme disease is one of the most common tick-related illnesses in the U.S., while the West Nile virus is one of the most common mosquito-related illnesses in the U.S. In addition to West Nile, mosquitos can also carry the Zika virus, malaria, encephalitis and yellow fever.
Ticks live in wooded areas and are most prominent in the spring and fall when rainfall amounts increase. Mosquitos that carry West Nile virus are most active in the summer, especially at dusk and down. You can protect yourself by using insect repellents and wearing long pants, a hat and a long-sleeved shirt when in wooded areas.
Avoiding antibiotic misuse
Antibiotics can help treat infections caused by bacteria, such as a sore throat or urinary tract infection, but they can’t treat viral infections, such as the flu or common cold. As effective as antibiotics can be in killing bacteria, they can also easily cause antibiotic resistance. With this side effect, bacteria become resistant to the antibiotics, thus rendering them useless.
When prescribing antibiotics, doctors must decide if the benefits outweigh the risks. According to the CDC, 28 percent of antibiotic prescriptions written are unnecessary.
Do vaccines prevent infection?
This question has become a popular topic ever since the coronavirus pandemic started in 2020. In short, most vaccines don’t provide 100 percent infection prevention. Instead, the main goal is to prevent you from getting symptomatic disease or lessening the severity of symptoms if they do occur. The flu vaccine is a popular example. The vaccine doesn’t always prevent you from getting the flu, but it does prepare the immune system to limit severe symptoms from developing.
Vaccines that prevent infection create what is known as sterilizing immunity, meaning it completely prevents a virus from replicating and infecting cells in your body.
That said, vaccines still prevent serious illness and death. Following a vaccine schedule when children are born can prevent 14 million cases of disease, save 33,000 lives and reduce health care costs by $9.9 billion, according to the U.S. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Control. The CDC recommends children and adults receive scheduled vaccines to fight against various infections:
Contact your primary care physician to learn more about infection prevention and which vaccines are available for you to receive.