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Infection Causes and Treatment

Updated on December 31, 2016

An infection is the invasion of the body by viruses (most common), bacteria (common) or fungi (uncommon). When microscopic animals invade the inside or outside of the body (e.g. lice, amoebiasis) the condition is called an infestation. There are about one hundred bacteria that cause significant infections in mankind, but several thousand viruses may attack the body. Fewer than 20 fungi cause serious problems.

Infections may enter the body when you inhale, eat or drink droplets containing germs, when germs come into contact with a wound, or when germs enter through other natural body openings (e.g. ears, anus, vagina), or by the skin being directly attacked (e.g. school sores).

As a general rule, bacterial and fungal infections can be treated and cured by the appropriate antibiotics and antifungal medications. Viral infections, with a few rare exceptions (e.g. shingles), cannot be cured, but it is possible to vaccinate against some of them (e.g. measles, influenza).

Viruses are generally classified by code numbers (e.g. HIV three that causes AIDS), or disease names (e.g. Hong Kong flu), and occasionally by a specific name (e.g. Rota viruses that cause gastroenteritis in children). Viruses are constantly changing their form, so detailed classification is difficult. Because of their incredibly tiny size, even identification prior to classification can be a major problem.

Bacteria and fungi can be more readily identified and classified. They have a family name which is followed by a species name. The infamous golden staph bacterium is correctly called Staphylococcus aureus because it comes from the Staphylococcus family, and appears golden in color ('aureus' means golden) under a microscope. It may cause infections in the throat, lungs, skin or almost any other part of the body. Other common examples of bacteria are Mycoplasma pneumoniae (causing a nasty form of pneumonia), Neisseria meningitidis (causing a type of meningitis), Salmonella typhi (causing typhoid), Neisseria gonorrhoeae (causing gonorrhoea), and Escherichia coli (causing some types of gastroenteritis).

Many diseases (e.g. bronchitis, meningitis, tonsillitis, urinary infections) can be caused by many different types of bacteria. Some bacteria are more susceptible to one antibiotic than another, and antibiotics do not always cure an infection by killing the bacteria, because in most cases there is no easy way for a doctor to tell which of the many possible bacteria is causing the infection. This can be determined by sending a sample of the infected material (e.g. urine or pus) to a laboratory for identification of the bacteria in it and establishing which antibiotics will kill them.

Fungi normally cause infections of the skin, mouth and vagina but may invade the inside of the body, particularly the gut and lung. Candida albicans is the fungus responsible for thrush in the mouth and vagina, while Trichophyton rubrum is responsible for some cases of tinea.

An infection is normally classified by the area infected rather than the bacteria or fungus causing the infection. Doctors (and patients) therefore talk about 'tonsillitis' rather than a 'staphylococcal infection of the tonsil'. Some infections have specific names (e.g. pneumonia) which are and indication of both place (the lung in this instance) and the seriousness of the infection. Specific common infections are dealt with under their name or the place infected.

Please Note:


  • The information provided on this page is not intended as a substitute for the advice of a registered physician or other healthcare professional.

  • The content of this page is intended only to provide a summary and general overview. Do not use this information to disregard medical advice, nor to delay seeking medical advice.

  • Be sure to consult with your doctor for a professional diagnosis and appropriate medical treatment.

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