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The Causes of Infection

Everything has to be caused by something, and infection is no different. There are six basic causative agents of infection.

Bacteria are single-celled plant-like microbes that act in a variety of ways to produce symptoms of infection. For example, they produce toxins or poisons in the body. Although bacteria reproduce inside the body, they do so outside the human cell as well and thus can be killed or inhibited by antibiotics. Strep throat, tuberculosis, pneumonia, gonorrhea, cholera and whooping cough are examples of infections caused by bacteria.

Viruses, chains of nucleic acid surrounded by a protein coat, are the most primitive form of life and cannot reproduce on their own. However, when they invade the human cell, they use the cell's reproductive capabilities. They are the tiniest and toughest of infectious pathogens. Antibiotics have no effect on viruses, and no drugs exist that can kill them. Some physicians prescribe antibiotics for patients with influenza to prevent secondary infection, but they have no effect on the influenza itself. Interferon, a protective substance made by the body, is one of the main means of attacking viruses. Some viral infections have been successfully prevented with vaccines. Examples of infections caused by viruses include the common cold, influenza, measles, rabies, herpes, smallpox and AIDS.

Protozoa are single-celled parasites that produce toxins and release enzymes that interrupt the body's ability to function normally. Protozoa-caused infections, such as malaria, sleeping sickness and amoebic dysentery, generally are associated with a tropical environment and poor sanitation and are not a public health problem in the United States. The one major exception is giardiasis, which can be caught by drinking contaminated water. Hikers and travelers are especially at risk for getting giardiasis. Protozoan infections can be treated with drugs.

As the name indicates, parasitic worms are multicelled animals usually shaped like flat or round worms. They release toxins inside the body and feed off blood and compete for food with the host. As a result, people infected with worms-for example, tapeworm disease-often are anemic and malnourished. Most worm infections can be treated successfully with drugs and often can be prevented with good hygiene and proper cooking of food. Trichinosis is an example of a parasitic infection caused by not cooking meat thoroughly.

Fungi are either single-celled or multicelled plant-like organisms that usually grow on the surface of the skin. They release enzymes that in turn digest cells. Antifungal topical ointments and drugs can kill fungi. Athlete's foot is an example of an infection caused by a fungus. Fungi are also allergens and in some parts of the country cause considerable discomfort.

A microorganism that is often described as somewhere between viruses and bacteria is rickettsia. It is much larger than a virus, is treated with antibiotics, and is parasitic in nature (requires living cells for growth). Rickettsial infection is usually transmitted by insects such as ticks. Common rickettsial diseases are Rocky Mountain spotted fever and typhus.


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