Saturday, January 4, 2014

Don't get sick!

Hello there!  Stephanie here to bring you the first of two blogs about health and wellness.  In this post I'll mainly be teaching the difference between viruses and bacteria.  I'll also do my best to debunk some myths and leave you with sources so you can do your own follow-up if you're curious.  Expect the second blog post to be about what to do (and what not to do) if you're already sick.  Let's go!

First and foremost, I want to break down the differences between viruses and bacteria - the things that make us sick in the first place!  The media likes to group viruses and bacteria together as "germs" a lot and this leaves the majority of the public with the idea that they are bad things, and that they can be treated the same way.  This is not the case.

As a collective, often viruses and bacteria are called "germs".  If you want a word that encompasses both and doesn't make you sound like you're talking to three-year-olds, the term "microbes" is probably what you're looking for.

Viruses come in many different shapes and sizes, but there are a few things that are constant across all viruses: they all have an outer capsid made of protein and a nucleic acid core comprised of either DNA or RNA.  Viruses, despite having DNA, are not technically living organisms.  Some popular viruses include: influenza (the flu), the common cold, HPV, and HIV.

Bacteria, unlike viruses, are living organisms and fully functional cells complete with organelles, although they do not have a membrane-bound nucleus so their organelles are just floating around inside the cell membrane.  Some popular bacteria include: e. coli, salmonella, tuberculosis and tetanus.

Now that you know there's a difference between the two, we can talk about treating them.  Because bacteria and viruses are not the same thing, you can't cure them the same way either.

In the event that you have a bacterial infection, your doctor will likely prescribe antibiotics.  However, there is a little danger that comes with taking antibiotics.  If you decide not to take all of your antibiotics when they're prescribed then you run the risk of killing off all of the weaker bacteria, leaving only the strongest of the bacteria to reproduce.  It's very important that you finish your antibiotics - don't just take them until you feel better.

Viruses on the other hand can't actually be "cured".  It's really just best to let your immune system run its course and have your white blood cells kill the viruses off.  You can treat the symptoms to make yourself more comfortable though.  For example, say you can't sleep because your body aches, and you have a runny nose and cough from a cold.  You may decide to take NyQuil which has acetaminophen (a pain killer and weak anti-inflammatory), dextromenthorphan (a cough suppressant) and doxylamine succinate (an antihistamine).  NyQuil will cover the symptoms, but once the dosage wears out you'll feel just about as sick as you did before.

Like the video had mentioned, it can sometimes be difficult to distinguish between a bacterial and viral infection.  It's best to consult a doctor - they're able to take samples and test to see which is which so you can be treated properly.

What can we do to prevent getting sick?

First and by far the most important - wash your hands often with soap and warm water, paying extra attention to your fingertips.  This sounds like a no-brainer, but not enough people wash their hands and even fewer wash them correctly.  Think about all of the stuff you touch every day without washing your hands; when was the last time you cleaned your television remote?  Your computer keyboard?  Your cell phone?  When you don't disinfect these items and you don't wash your hands, you're potentially spreading illness.

Anti-bacterial gel is fine in a pinch, but soap and water is still the best.  Just like antibiotics, anti-bacterial gel won't kill viruses (unless it contains a lot of alcohol in the solution - hospitals usually pack a solution that's between 75-90%).  Also, because you're killing off all of the weaker bacteria and leaving the remaining strong bacteria on your hands, you're doing your part in creating super bacteria...which isn't so super.

Additionally, the "Kills 99.9% of bacteria" claim has been falsely advertised to the public.  In a report by the Wall Street Journal, it was found that "Human subjects, or countertops, in labs are cleaned first, then covered on the surface with a target bug. That is a far cry from a typical kitchen or a pair of grimy hands...Three popular sanitizers killed between 46% and 60% of microbes on the students' hands, far short of 99.99%."  The companies can claim 99.9% effectiveness by counting how many microbes have died, rather than how many different kinds of microbes have died.  It could kill off 6 million units of one kind of harmless bacteria, but it couldn't kill off 1 potentially deadly virus.

The Second thing you can do to prevent illness - you can get vaccinated.  There has been a ton of slander in the tabloids about vaccinations causing autism or poisoning people and it's, for me personally, really something horrible to watch happen.  Science has come so far and now we have people that are refusing medicine because they don't know enough about it.

Let's kick off this section with where the rumor that "vaccinations cause autism" started.
Andrew Wakefield published a study in 1998 that popularized the idea that autism is linked to vaccines. His entire study was proven false, and he was paid by a law firm to publish the fake study so they could sue the vaccine manufacturers. His research was discredited and he was forced to resign from medical practice.  If you want more information about this, you can check out the case studies that debunked his studies here, here and here.

If you're one of the few that don't get sick even when you don't take vaccines, then great, you're the shining example of what scientists like to call "herd immunity".  According to wikipedia:
Herd immunity (or community immunity) describes a form of immunity that occurs when the vaccination of a significant portion of a population (or herd) provides a measure of protection for individuals who have not developed immunity.[1] Herd immunity theory proposes that, in contagious diseases that are transmitted from individual to individual, chains of infection are likely to be disrupted when large numbers of a population are immune or less susceptible to the disease. The greater the proportion of individuals who are resistant, the smaller the probability that a susceptible individual will come into contact with an infectious individual.[2]
If wikipedia isn't good enough for you, feel free to follow the links that they have sited on their webpage.

If herd immunity isn't a bad thing, then why all the fuss?

The problem arises when more and more people don't get vaccinated.  More people are hiding behind the facade of health and wellness, but in doing so you also weaken the overall health of the herd community. There are some people that have problems with their immune system that render them unable to take vaccines, which means that they're already more susceptible to illness.  If you get sick and you run into someone who already has a weakened immune system, they're likely going to get sick.  People who are vaccinated are the barrier for those who cannot take vaccines.

Herd immunity is a cool thing because it helps to eradicate diseases.  Bacteria and viruses are on a timer - they have to reproduce very quickly before they die.  When someone who is sick spreads their pathogens to another person who is immunized, the pathogen has to take time to mutate so it can successfully reproduce.  Sometimes, when we're lucky, the pathogen dies off before it actually gets a chance to make us ill.  But, enough people need to be immunized to make this happen.  

"Okay, so fine, vaccines don't cause autism, but they're still going to poison my child!"
Please, please, stop.  PLEASE.  

To be fair, a post on tumblr from a supposed immunologist isn't necessarily a credible source.  However, shoutout to canuckfanatic on imgur who compiled a wonderful post about vaccines that helped a lot with my research for this portion of the article, which also help to back up the blogger on tumblr.  Canuckfanatic has also listed over a dozen helpful links with a wealth of credible information about viruses and vaccines.  

In short, please please please please PLEASE get vaccinated.  

But, I'm already sick!  What can I do to get better quicker?

For those of you like me that have already been bitten with a bug this season, I'll be posting another blog soon with some tips to get you back on your feet as soon as possible.  While you wait: continue to wash your hands, drink lots of water, and get plenty of sleep!  Thanks for reading, and I'll be back soon (:

[Obligatory Disclaimer]
I'm am not a medical practitioner!  I have taken college-level biology courses and I work at a science museum, but that's about where my science credentials end.  Because I'm a student (albeit a pretty good one), that basically just means that when I don't know something I'm pretty good at researching the subject and learning about it.  However, if you have a medical emergency or if you have an illness you want diagnosed, please go see your doctor! Don't leave me a comment waiting for a solution - go get it checked out.  

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