Your skin is an excellent coat of armor that keeps most germs out of the body. But cuts or other breaks in this covering, and openings such as the nose and mouth, provide opportunities for germs to enter. When you breathe and ingest food and liquid, germs frequently hitch a ride on these life-sustaining elements to find their way to places inside where they can comfortably settle and multiply.
Although some germs can directly penetrate the skin, most enter when the body’s armor is cut, pierced, or otherwise rendered vulnerable by injury.
The common ways that diseases and infections spread are:
Many bacteria and viruses are spread and taken into body through the nose and throat. Large number of germs thrive in moisture, and spiting, coughing, and sneezing keeps them circulating from person to person. When you sneeze, you may expel a spray of liquid drops extending several feet.
Other germs can ride aboard tiny bits of dust, dirt, cigarette, smoke, or other foreign matter into the mouth, throat, and lungs, and weaken the body’s defenses. For example, the particles in cigarette smoke have a definite, harmful effect on lung tissue and make that tissue more susceptible to assault by inhaled germs.
Among the many illnesses caused by germs inhaled with air are the common cold, pneumonia, scarlet fever, diphtheria, influenza, and meningitis. Colds or flu, serious enough in themselves, weaken the body’s resistance and offer other germs such as streptococci and pneumococci a greater chance to get a foothold in your body and cause more dangerous diseases. A persistent cough, especially one that lasts more than several weeks, may indicate the development of a serious condition, and a doctor should be consulted.
2. Food and Water
Solid foods and liquids provide perfect vehicles for germs to use to get past the body’s natural armor. Many foods in their natural and uncooked states carry germs and the toxins they create. Even foods and liquids which have been thoroughly cleaned and boiled can be contaminated through improper and unsanitary handling by a germ carrier.
For example, amoebic dysentery is sometimes present in a public water system because the germs which cause it to resist the chemicals used for purification. Typhoid fever is typical of the infections that can enter the body through the mouth. It is frequently transmitted in food, milk or water that has been contaminated by feces.
Habits of cleanliness should be practiced by everyone, especially by those who handle and prepare food. Washing hands after going to the toilet and before eating should be as automatic as breathing.
Water from the faucet in most cities is safe to drink. But if you live in the country or spend your vacation there, be careful about the drinking water. To be on the safe side, boil it for 10 minutes before drinking it.
Milk is a perfect culture medium for germs and thus requires especially careful preparations, preservation, and handling. All milk should be pasteurized. Raw (unpasteurized) milk—even from cattle certified as healthy—should be scalded in a double boiler at 150° F for half an hour before being drunk. It should be stored under refrigeration to inhibit germ growth. And it should be kept in sterilized containers and away from sources of contamination.
4. Meats and Fish
Meats also carry disease. Pork may contain trichinae parasites and should be cooked thoroughly; pinkness of the flesh means the meat is underdone. Brucellosis (undulant fever) is a serious disease and can be acquired from pork, beef, and unpasteurized milk. Raw fish, beef, and pork may contain tapeworms. Thorough cooking of all meats and fish is the best protection
5. Canned Foods
Improperly canned food is extremely dangerous. This is also true of home preserved food whose containers have lost their airtightness. Such food can contain bacteria that cause food poisoning. One of the worst kinds, botulism, results from the toxin of a germ and produces a fatal paralysis. It is usually caused by home-canned food that was improperly processed.
If you home-can food, use only the proven methods recommended by the government. Do not even taste canned food suspected of spoilage. Food from a bulging, punctured, or split container, or food that has an odd look or smell, can be deadly.
6. Baked Goods
Active germs may be lurking in bakery goods, especially those with custard fillings such as eclairs. Buy only fresh-baked goods from a clean, reliable bakery, and keep them refrigerated.
7. Refrigerating Food
One of the most frequent food infection problems results from poor refrigeration or none at all, thus allowing bacteria to grow. Every precaution should be taken to keep food that is susceptible to spoilage under proper refrigeration in order to prevent the growth of dangerous bacteria. In particular, moist salads and prepared dishes bought from trays in a store should be treated with caution. Many are made with milk or eggs, and unless fresh and well-refrigerated, they can harbor germ cultures.
8. Wounds and Scratches
All cuts, wounds, and scratches are potential entrances for germs. The damaged area should be washed with soap and water, then treated. One of the most serious dangers from wounds and deep scratches is the germ causing tetanus (lockjaw). It is usually found in the soil—especially wherever there are horses, cows, and manure—and is also present in the dust of city streets. A deep puncture wound by a nail is serious; it is not the rust but the germs on the nail that cause infection.
The best preventive for tetanus is toxoid immunization. For children aged two months to six years, three doses at four to six weeks’ intervals are recommended, with an additional dose at one year of age and another upon entering school. Thereafter, one dose every 10 years is advised. School-age children and adults who need immunization should get two doses at four to six weeks’ intervals, a third dose at six to 12 months, and one every 10 years thereafter
An injured person without toxoid immunization needs tetanus antitoxin (TAT). For those sensitive to this horse serum, tetanus immune globulin (TIG), made from human serum, can be substituted by the attending physician.
9. Animal Bites
Any animal bite that breaks the skin should be washed with soap and water, then covered with a sterile dressing. Do not use alcohol or other antiseptics. Always consult a doctor.
Rabies is a virus disease that affects the brain and nervous system. It comes from a virus in the saliva of infected, warm-blooded wild and domestic animals such as dogs, cats, squirrels and bats. If possible, the biting animal should be caught for examination by public health officials.
Persons bitten by an infected animal or one suspected rabies must receive treatment with either a combination of serum and vaccine, or of vaccine alone in some cases. Otherwise, rabies is fatal. If the bite of an infected animal is on the victim’s head or neck, prompt treatment is vital because the virus can reach the brain rapidly.
All warm-blooded animals are potential rabies carriers, and any pet acting strangely should be examined by a veterinarian. Such pets should also be vaccinated against rabies if they roam free. Contact of any kind with a wild animal that behaves oddly—that is, approaches a human or does not run away—should be avoided.
10. Insect Bites
Bites of insects are a source of infection because they often carry germs in their mouths or in their excrement. An insect bite breaks the body’s skin armor, permitting germs to enter through the opening.
Germs that cause endemic typhus fever are carried by fleas living on rats and other rodents. When the flea bites a human, the germs are transmitted.
Malaria and yellow fever are carried by certain mosquitoes. If you visit areas where malaria is prevalent, protect yourself against mosquitoes with a repellant and use mosquito netting over the bed. Although there is no immunization against malaria, your doctor can recommend effective prophylactic measures you should take in case you visit malaria-infested areas.
11. Physical Contact
The human reproductive process and customs related to it can result in contact with harmful germs. The urinogenital openings of the body are natural entrances for germs causing venereal diseases, which are spread by sexual contact. The germs causing two major venereal diseases, syphilis and gonorrhea, thrive in warm, moist environment and are transmitted from one human to another by contact of mucous membranes
Take Reasonable Precautions
Although germs are everywhere, there is no need to be intimidated by them. Like many other dangers to life and health, this threat can easily be minimized if you simply exercise common sense. For example, do not drink from glasses or use two towels that have been used by others.
Minimize your contacts with infected persons. When you are in an area where dangerous germs are known to exist in great numbers, follow recommended anti-infection procedures that have proved to be effective. Insect repellants, clothing and shoes that protect you from wounds, and the avoidance of food and water suspected of transmitting disease can all play major roles in keeping you healthy.
Soap and water can destroy or wash away many germs. Disinfectants are useful in inhibiting germs, but they can lull you into a false sense of security. Antiseptics such as strong bleach will kill germs, but being poisonous, they can be dangerous if improperly handled. In general, soap and water, fresh air and sunshine are the best everyday aids in killing germs.
Finally, if you know you have been exposed to dangerous germs and suspect infection, consult your doctor at once. If you take reasonable precautions to keep germs away, you will find that you can get along very well in spite of them.