Why Am I Getting Sick So Often
Why Am I Getting Sick So Often? You’re getting ready for bed one night, just as you’re about to start reading the latest bestseller on your Kindle app, when it hits you. You feel mildly ill, but you think it’s nothing more than a bug. Then, after you’ve gone back to sleep, you wake up with a fever and aches. What happened? Did you get something else besides what you thought you had?
If so, chances are good that you may have been infected by a “secondary infection,” or super-pathogen. A super-pathogen is an infection that isn’t recognized by your body because its symptoms aren’t severe enough to trigger antibodies, which would normally ward off other germs. Instead, they can slip past your defenses and cause inflammation that weakens your immune response.
When this happens, your immune system is less likely to recognize the original germ as dangerous and therefore not expend energy fighting it. This leaves room for another pathogen to sneak in. Once infected, the new organism will multiply and take over, causing additional damage. And like many illnesses today, there may not even be any telltale signs that these infections have taken hold. That means the problem often goes undetected until someone gets really sick.
The most common example of a super-pathogen is Legionnaire’s disease (LegD), caused by legionella bacteria. In fact, the name Legionnaires’ comes from outbreaks of this form of pneumonia first reported among soldiers stationed at Fort Dix during World War II. The bacteria thrive in warm water environments, such as those found in air conditioning units and hot tubs, where people congregate indoors without proper ventilation.
LegD usually causes flu-like symptoms and sometimes leads to a type of pneumonia called Legionellosis. But unlike typical pneumonia, which attacks the lungs, Legionellosis affects the brain and nervous system instead. It also has a higher fatality rate than other forms of pneumonia, ranging anywhere from 10 percent to 60 percent depending on how advanced the condition becomes.
In addition to Legionnaire’s disease, here are some examples of super-pathogens:
Clostridium difficile (C.diff) is a bacterium that produces diarrhea and intestinal cramping. Usually it strikes older adults who use antibiotics or antacids containing certain ingredients. C.diff then spreads through contact with fecal matter. Although it rarely kills, it causes extreme discomfort and can lead to dehydration if left untreated.
Tuberculosis (TB) is a respiratory infection caused by Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the bane of humanity since ancient times. TB can affect almost every part of our bodies, including the lungs, bones, joints and central nervous system. When inhaled into the lungs, M.tuberculosis converts to a spore that infects cells. These spores grow inside macrophages, which eat them. From there, the bacteria spread throughout the body, leading to active TB. With proper treatment, however, patients recover completely.
Neisseria meningitidis is a rod-shaped bacterium that typically resides harmlessly in the nose and throat cavities. Occasionally, though, N.meningitides can invade the bloodstream and cause bacterial meningitis, a life-threatening brain infection. Bacterial meningitis can be prevented by vaccination against the serogroup responsible for the outbreak.
Gonorrhea is a sexually transmitted disease caused by Neisseria gonorrhoeae. Symptoms include painful urination and bleeding discharge from the genitals. Untreated gonorrhea can result in long-term complications, including infertility, blindness and birth defects.
Hepatitis B virus is a small DNA-containing virus that infects the liver, inflicting chronic inflammation and scarring. HepB is primarily transmitted via blood transfusions, organ transplants, sexual intercourse and sharing hypodermic needles. About 350 million people worldwide are infected with HepB, and while 90 percent of them show no symptoms, 1 out of 5 develop chronic hepatitis B (CHB). CHB can progress to cirrhosis and liver cancer, making it the sixth leading cause of death among Americans ages 15 to 44.
Herpes simplex types 1 and 2 are two different strains of the same virus. Herpesviruses are passed along through close personal contact, whether directly or indirectly (through skin-to-skin contact with towels or clothing used by an infected person). Most people carry HSV-1 without ever knowing it; HSV-2, however, tends to stay hidden unless an individual receives medical attention. While both viruses can cause cold sores around the mouth and lips, HSV-1 generally causes blisters near the nerve endings, whereas HSV-2 prefers spreading to areas farther away from the surface of the skin.
Some infectious diseases don’t fit neatly into any particular category. For instance, HIV/AIDS is a retrovirus that targets CD4+ T lymphocytes, which play a key role in the immune system. Once infected, individuals lose their ability to fight off viral invaders and become susceptible to opportunistic infections. There are currently 34.3 million people living with HIV/AIDs worldwide, and each year nearly 700,000 new cases occur. In 2014 alone, AIDS killed approximately 435,000 people worldwide.
There are steps we all can take to avoid super-infections. First, wash your hands regularly with soap and water. If you’re going to touch things others may have touched, wear disposable gloves or sanitary wipes. Also, keep your home clean, especially if you live with elderly family members or children under age 6. Use antibacterial cleaning products and make sure everyone uses hand sanitizer gel or wipes before eating. Finally, choose foods wisely. Avoid raw meat, unwashed fruits and vegetables, sushi and shellfish, unpasteurized dairy and ice cream made with raw milk.
Super-infections are not only scary, but also costly. According to estimates, hospitalizations due to super-infections cost the U.S. health care system $30 billion annually.
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