What are ‘germs’?

March, 2021

By: Paul Jarvie

Share on email
Share on facebook
Share on linkedin

The word ‘germ’ is a generic term for bacteria, viruses, protozoa, fungi and helminths. These are collectively known as microbes. Microbes as the word indicates, are very small and can only been seen under a microscope and not all of them are bad for us, in fact some are very beneficial to our bodily functions.

The following article further defines germs, explores how they interact with the human body and details how to protect yourself against them.

Bacteria.  Bacteria are single celled organisms that get their nutrients from the environment including people. They are the most abundant organism known to man and can be found everywhere from food, soil, inside the gut and in saliva to on your pets.

They breakdown waste and assist in returning nutrients back into the earth. Most bacteria are harmless with only around 1% causing illnesses. The majority of bacteria that lives inside our body is helpful and assists in digestion and helps protect us from other organisms. Once harmful bacteria invade our body, they can multiply quickly, producing toxins and it is this substance that damages our cells causing irritation, pain, swelling and leads to issues like strep throat and other infections. Antibiotics are required to rid the body of the harmful bacteria.

Viruses. These are basically just a capsule that contains genetic material. Viruses need a host to survive- and for COVID-19 that was people. The virus invades the human cell and begins to multiple and take over causing disease. The original human cell dies, however there are now numerous other viruses which invade other cells causing illness. Colds, Flu, AIDs, Measles. Antibiotics do not have any effect on viruses.

Fungi. Fungi feed off other organisms. They can range from single celled organisms through to multicellular structures – molds, mushrooms. Yeast is a fungus as well as the blue and green colours seen within some cheeses. Some fungi can be harmful causing diseases like athlete’s foot, thrush and skin conditions.

Protozoa.  These are one celled organism that required moist conditions to survive. They hunt and gather other microbes for their food. Most protozoans are harmless to humans although some can invade our body from food and drink that has been consumed and cause food poisoning. Malaria is another example of a protozoa illness.

Helminths These are larger parasites (worms) or their eggs, that can enter the body and once inside they like to stay and grow. Roundworm and tape worm are examples.

When germs infect our body they begin to multiple and our immune system activates to attack the invading organism producing antibodies.

How Harmful Germs are spread?

Germs spread in many different ways including through the air (airborne), close contact like touching, via infectious materials, from household pets or insects and through food and water.


To create an infection, germs first have to get into the body which presents many opportunities to protect ourselves.

We can prevent infection through simple tactic like washing your hands regularly, avoiding close contact with people who are sick, cleaning surfaces that are touched often, avoiding contaminated food and water, getting vaccinations, and taking appropriate medications.

  • Hand-washing: Often overlooked, hand-washing is one of the easiest and most effective ways to protect yourself from germs and most infections. Washing your hands thoroughly before preparing or eating food, after coughing or sneezing, after changing a nappy, and after using the toilet is a good protection measure. When soap and water aren’t available, alcohol-based hand-sanitising gels can offer protection.
  • Vaccines: Vaccination is your best line of defense for certain diseases. As researchers understand more about what causes disease, the number of diseases that can be prevented by vaccines continues to grow. Many vaccines are given in childhood. But adults still need routine vaccinations to prevent some illnesses, such as tetanus and influenza.
  • Medicines: Some medicines offer short-term protection from certain germs. For example, taking an anti-parasitic medication might keep you avoid malaria if you travel or live in a high-risk area.
  • Handling food with care: Raw meats, poultry and seafood are common sources of bacteria. You can avoid cross-contaminating foods by keeping them and their juices separate from each other. Always wash your hands after handling raw meat, and thoroughly wash any surfaces they have touched. Cook food to proper temperatures and refrigerate food promptly.
  • Cleaning: Clean and disinfect surfaces, particularly in the kitchen and bathroom. This is especially important when someone in the family is sick. Use paper towels, disinfecting wipes or cloths that can be washed.

Germs are all around us. Most are good for us and the environment, but some do cause serious illnesses.

By following good workplace and personal hygiene practices we are able control the spread of germs. COVID 19 has demonstrated that – just following basic rules helped control some very contagious germs.

Knowing germs are there but we can’t see them, continuing with basic hygiene like washing hands is something we should all do to protect our health.

Share on print
Share on email
Share on facebook
Share on linkedin