How to Reduce Your Risk of Infectious Diseases

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There are some proven ways to keep yourself healthy. You know the basics: steer clear of runny noses and hacking coughs. But you may be wondering about some other practical ways of staying infection-free. This has become of even greater concern. While the risk related to "traditional infections" has often been reduced by vaccination and antibiotics, emerging infectious diseases are popping up to remind us how vulnerable we really are.

Not only are new "bugs" appearing, but some of the "old bugs" are getting smarter. Your skin acts as a natural barrier against harmful microbes that cause infections, but "smart bugs" have found alternative routes to get into your body and cause infection. Smart bugs have also learned how to produce compounds which can make many, and sometimes all, of our current antibiotic arsenal ineffective. You may wish to learn about the rise of these superbugs.

If you've watched the news about these emerging infectious diseases, you may be feeling a little apprehensive. It seems we all know of someone who was basically healthy, yet developed an infection that caused significant sickness and disability. Next time could it be you?

While both wizened old and emerging infections can frighten the most stoic individual, we are not without measures to fight back. By making a few simple behavioral changes (which ultimately reduce their access to your body,) you can easily prevent the spread of many infectious diseases.

Let's look at 10 practical tips to lower your risk, followed by a few special notes for those who are pregnant or immunosuppressed due to disease or chemotherapy. Some of these tips may seem obvious, but others may surprise you.

Wash Your Hands Frequently and Well

Did you know that microbes can live on inert surfaces anywhere from a few minutes to several months? It depends on the microbe and the environment. Some can live for short periods only; others can live for long periods. Imagine these disease-causing microbes living on your computer keyboard, your light-switch, or even on the pedestrian crossing button next to the crosswalk! Many diseases can be transmitted by fomites, the term used to describe the intermediary between another infected person and yourself.

Surprisingly, the vast majority of people don’t know the best way to effectively wash their hands. The CDC recommends washing thoroughly and vigorously with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, followed by hand drying with a clean towel or air drying. In the absence of running water, an alcohol-based hand gel or wipe will suffice, although nothing beats good old soap and water. This takes about as long as it does to sing "Happy Birthday", so some hospitals recommend washing your hands for the duration of this simple tune!

Don't Share Personal Items

Toothbrushes, towels, razors, handkerchiefs, and nail clippers can all be sources of infectious agents (bacteria, viruses, and fungi). In kindergarten, you were taught to share your toys, but keep your hands to yourself. Now try to remember to keep personal items to yourself as well! For example, hepatitis B can be transmitted from sharing razors and toothbrushes.

Cover Your Mouth When You Cough or Sneeze

In a similar vein, good personal hygiene includes not only personal cleanliness but also the age-old practice of covering your mouth when you cough or sneeze. Why is this important if you aren’t sick? For most infections, the disease-causing microbe has already started growing and dividing long before any symptoms begin to show.

Coughing or sneezing can spread these germs through microscopic droplets in the air. The current recommendation is to cover your mouth with your arm, sleeve, or crook of the elbow, rather than using your bare hands.

Get Vaccinated

Your immune system is designed to have a “memory” of previous infections. When your body encounters a microbe that has previously caused an infection, it enhances its production of white blood cells and antibodies to prevent infection a second time. However, by getting vaccinated, you “trick” your body into thinking that it has been infected by a particular microbe, hence enhancing its own defenses against subsequent infection.

Getting the immunizations you need will protect you and those around you. Being vaccinated against hepatitis B, for example, is a way to protect yourself even when avoiding using the personal items of others is not enough.

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Use Safe Cooking Practices

Food-borne illnesses frequently arise from poor food preparation and dining habits. What many people do not realize is that most cases of the "stomach flu" in adults are really food poisoning. Microbes thrive on virtually all food items, and more so on foods left at room temperature.

Refrigeration slows or stops the growth of most microbes. Promptly refrigerate foods within two hours of preparation. If you're wondering what to do at your next potluck, check out these tips for food safety at barbecues and picnics. Use separate cutting boards for raw meats and vegetables, keep your countertops clean, and wash all fruits and vegetables well prior to eating.

Be a Smart Traveler

Infectious diseases can easily be picked up while traveling, particularly when traveling to resource-limited countries. If your travel destination is one where water is questionable, make sure to use a safe water source such as bottled water for drinking and brushing your teeth. Keep in mind that ice cubes can sometimes be a "hidden" source of contaminated water.

Eat foods that have been cooked, and avoid raw vegetables and fruits. When you do eat fruits, choose those which can be peeled, and make sure the peel does not come into contact with the rest of the fruit during peeling. Finally, be sure to update all immunizations that are advised or required for your travel destination. Here are a few more tips for staying healthy when traveling.

Practice Safe Sex

Sexually-transmitted diseases are probably the most easily preventable infectious diseases. By being smart about safe sex (using condoms), transfer of infectious bacteria or viruses from one person to another can be prevented.

It's not just an infectious disease or even pregnancy, that can be a problem. It is thought that about 16 percent of cancers are related to infections worldwide —most of them sexually transmitted.

Don't Pick Your Nose (or Your Mouth and Eyes)

Not only is it a social taboo, but picking your nose leads to the spread of a number of infections. Look around, and you’ll notice how many people have their hands next to their faces. Many microbes prefer the warm, moist environment inside your nose, as well as other mucous-covered surfaces such as your eyes and mouth. Infections can be easily prevented by avoiding touching of these areas.

Exercise Caution With Animals

Infections that can spread from animals to people are called “zoonotic diseases" and are more common than most people realize. If you have pets, make sure they get regular check-ups and that their vaccinations are up-to-date. Clean litter boxes frequently (unless you’re pregnant—stay away!), and keep small children away from animal feces.

Different types of wild animals can carry diseases such as rabies or bird flu and fleas and ticks can spread plague and Lyme disease. Make the area around your home unfriendly to rodents and other mammals by eliminating areas where they could hide or build nests, using rodent-proof trash cans that contain food waste and sealing up holes that offer easy and attractive access to animals. Teach small children in your household to be cautious when encountering wild animals.

Watch the News

A good understanding of current events can help you to make wise decisions about traveling or other recreational activities. For example, a bird flu outbreak in Asia may make you think twice about a trip you were planning. Reports of the West Nile Virus spread by mosquitoes? You may want to bring some insect repellent on your camping trip after all! Salmonella in tomatoes? Don’t eat tomatoes. You get the idea. Online, the CDC provides information on the latest outbreaks as well as regions of the world in which many infectious diseases are endemic.

For Those Who Are Pregnant

For those who are pregnant, extra vigilance is needed. Some infections—those which are only a nuisance to healthy people who aren't pregnant—can lead to problems in pregnancy. Several infections can lead to miscarriage and stillbirth while others can result in birth defects.

That said, you don't need to go through your pregnancy fretting. The measures for preventing infections listed above are very effective in reducing your risk.

For Those Who Are Hospitalized

Hospital-acquired infections, known as "nosocomial infections" are a significant cause of death in the United States and around the world. Not only is the hospital a literal breeding ground for nasty bacteria, but many of these bacteria have developed resistance to many antibiotics. Check out these tips for avoiding hospital-acquired infections.

For Those Who Are Immunosuppressed or on Chemotherapy

For those who are receiving chemotherapy, are infected with HIV, or are immunosuppressed in some other way, a little extra fortitude is needed to protect against microscopic menaces. Bacteria which do not cause infections in people with healthy immune systems can become a problem (opportunistic infections,) and these people may also become much sicker when exposed to infections.

From infections transmitted by pets to food-borne infections, there are several things you will need to know about infections that go beyond the prevention tips listed above. Learn about lowering your risk of infection during chemotherapy or when your immune system is suppressed for some other reason.

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