Infectious diseases are disorders caused by organisms — such as bacteria, viruses, fungi or parasites. Many organisms live in and on our bodies. They're normally harmless or even helpful. But under certain conditions, some organisms may cause disease.
Some infectious diseases can be passed from person to person. Some are transmitted by insects or other animals. And you may get others by consuming contaminated food or water or being exposed to organisms in the environment.
Signs and symptoms vary depending on the organism causing the infection, but often include fever and fatigue. Mild infections may respond to rest and home remedies, while some life-threatening infections may need hospitalization.
Many infectious diseases, such as measles and chickenpox, can be prevented by vaccines. Frequent and thorough hand-washing also helps protect you from most infectious diseases
Infectious diseases can be caused by:
- Bacteria. These one-cell organisms are responsible for illnesses such as strep throat, urinary tract infections and tuberculosis.
- Viruses. Even smaller than bacteria, viruses cause a multitude of diseases ranging from the common cold to AIDS.
- Many skin diseases, such as ringworm and athlete's foot, are caused by fungi. Other types of fungi can infect your lungs or nervous system.
- Parasites. Malaria is caused by a tiny parasite that is transmitted by a mosquito bite. Other parasites may be transmitted to humans from animal feces.
An easy way to catch most infectious diseases is by coming in contact with a person or an animal with the infection. Infectious diseases can be spread through direct contact such as:
Person to person. Infectious diseases commonly spread through the direct transfer of bacteria, viruses or other germs from one person to another. This can happen when an individual with the bacterium or virus touches, kisses, or coughs or sneezes on someone who isn't infected. These germs can also spread through the exchange of body fluids from sexual contact. The person who passes the germ may have no symptoms of the disease, but may simply be a carrier.
Animal to person. Being bitten or scratched by an infected animal — even a pet — can make you sick and, in extreme circumstances, can be fatal. Handling animal waste can be hazardous, too. For example, you can get a toxoplasmosis infection by scooping your cat's litter box.
Mother to unborn child. A pregnant woman may pass germs that cause infectious diseases to her unborn baby. Some germs can pass through the placenta or through breast milk. Germs in the vagina can also be transmitted to the baby during birth.
Disease-causing organisms also can be passed by indirect contact. Many germs can linger on an inanimate object, such as a tabletop, doorknob or faucet handle.
When you touch a doorknob handled by someone ill with the flu or a cold, for example, you can pick up the germs he or she left behind. If you then touch your eyes, mouth or nose before washing your hands, you may become infected.
Some germs rely on insect carriers — such as mosquitoes, fleas, lice or ticks — to move from host to host. These carriers are known as vectors. Mosquitoes can carry the malaria parasite or West Nile virus. Deer ticks may carry the bacterium that causes Lyme disease.