The medical treatment of infectious diseases falls into a medical field called Infectiology. In some cases, the study of the spreading of infectious disease pertains to the field of Epidemiology. Generally, infections are initially diagnosed by primary care physicians or internal medicine specialists. For example, an “uncomplicated” pneumonia will generally be treated by the internist or the pulmonologist (lung physician). The work of the infectiologist entails working with both patients and general practitioners, as well as with immunologists, laboratory scientists, bacteriologists and other specialists.
Infectious diseases, also known as communicable diseases, are diseases that result from coming in contact with certain germs, and are a major concern among seniors. About one third of all deaths in people over the age of 65 are caused by infectious diseases. One can contract an infectious disease by coming in contact with someone who carries specific germs as well as from germs that reside in and on food, drinks, surfaces and the air. If an infectious disease is easily passed from one person to another, it is considered to be contagious.
The four main causes of infectious diseases are:
Bacteria. Bacteria are single-celled germs that multiply quickly. Less than one percent of bacteria actually make people sick. When these bacteria are in the body, they can multiply and give off toxins that damage the body’s tissues and can make a person very ill. Some examples of “bad” bacteria are E.coli, streptococcus and staphylococcus. Some diseases that are a result of bacterial infections include bacterial pneumonia, bacterial meningitis, tuberculosis (TB), food poisoning, bacterial bronchitis, blood poisoning, MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus Aureus), strep throat, bone and joint infections, urinary tract infections (UTI) and diarrhea, as well as cellulitis, impetigo, sepsis, and bone and joint infections due to causes such as pressure (bed) sores.
Bacterial skin infections are one of the most common diseases among seniors. As a person’s skin ages, the integrity of the skin declines which makes it more susceptible to germs getting through and causing infection. This, combined with the typical suppressed immune systems often found in seniors, makes them more prone to severe skin infections. The usual treatments for bacterial infections are oral and topical antibiotics. However, a major concern among seniors is the recent upswing in the appearance of drug-resistant bacteria such as Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA). Bacterial infections are of particular concern to seniors because they are more likely to be exposed to such organisms in hospitals and other health care settings.
Virus. A virus is very tiny and smaller than bacteria. A virus is like a capsule because it carries genetic material inside of it similar to how a pill capsule contains medication. However, these capsules attach to and invade normal cells within the body. They then use the cells to replicate so that they can multiply. Common viral infections include the common cold, warts, viral meningitis, viral bronchitis, flu (influenza), HIV/AIDS, hemorrhagic fevers, viral pneumonia, shingles (herpes zoster) and smallpox. Viral infections live inside the body’s cells and are protected by them. Bacterial and viral infections have many similarities. Both types of infections are caused by microbes and spread in much the same manner. Both types of infections can cause mild, moderate and severe disease. However, some differences are in the way viruses respond to antimicrobial medications antibiotics. Antibiotics do not work on viral infections and there are few anti-viral medicines available. Additionally, while vaccines may help to prevent a person from getting many viral diseases by boosting the body’s natural defenses against a virus, they do not cure them. As a result, viral infections are very hard to treat.
Fungi. Fungi are primitive plants. Examples are mushrooms, mold and mildew. Some types of fungi live in the body but most live in the air, soil, on plants and in water. Of the many types of fungi, only about half are harmful. Fungal infection includes athlete’s foot, thrush/yeast infections, histoplasmosis, fungal pneumonia and ringworm. The fungi that affect the internal organs and deeper layers of skin tissue are capable of causing serious damage and often fatal illnesses. Many fungi produce spores. Spores act a lot like pollen as they are released from the fungi and drift through the air. As a result, fungal infections often start on the skin or in the lungs. Those most at risk for fungal infections are those with weakened immune systems or those who are taking antibiotics. Fungal infections are difficult to kill. Some infections may be treated using a topical cream applied directly to the affected area. Other more serious fungal infections may be treated by oral antifungal medicines.
Protozoa. Protozoa are single-celled animals that are considered parasites because they live on and feed off of other animals. Protozoa can be transmitted through bug bites, contaminated water and sexual contact. Types of protozoan diseases are giardia infections, toxoplasmosis, diarrhea due to contact with amoebas (amoebic dysentery) and malaria. The general treatments for protozoan infections are antibiotics and antiprotozoal medications.
Often times, infectious diseases may coexist and can be the cause of or caused by other health issues. For instance, infectious diseases caused by the streptococcus bacteria – such as strep throat or scarlet fever – can cause rheumatic fever. Rheumatic fever can cause an inflammation of the inner layer of the heart called ineffective endocarditis. Ineffective endocarditis can then cause heart valve damage. An example of infection caused by other health issues is pressure (bed) sores which can cause other infections. These infections happen quickly and are difficult to treat. When someone suffers from bed sores, they can get infections that cause diseases like cellulitis which is an acute infection of the skin’s connective tissue that causes pain, redness and swelling, all of which can be severe. Cellulitis can also lead to life-threatening complications including sepsis and meningitis.
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