What’s Making You Sick?
Viruses, Bacteria, Fungi and Parasites
Published March 2023
They’re hiding in plain sight: on public transportation, in your kitchen, at your child’s day care center. There are four common types of pathogens, or germs, that can make you sick:
Here, Michael P. Angarone, DO, Northwestern Medicine infectious disease specialist, explains each one.
- Viruses are not living organisms. They’re pieces of genetic code (DNA or RNA) coated with protein.
- Viruses invade your cells. Then, they use parts of your cells to replicate.
- When replicated viruses are released in your body, they damage or destroy your cells, making you sick.
- Antibiotic medications do not work against viruses. Some antiviral medications work against certain types of viruses.
- Examples of diseases caused by viruses:
- Bacteria are living, single-cell organisms.
- Not all bacteria cause infections. You have more helpful bacteria in your digestive tract than cells in your entire body. These bacteria help with digestion, destroy harmful (pathogenic) bacteria and help control your immune system.
- Pathogenic bacteria can make you sick by producing toxins and/or invading and damaging healthy cells.
- Antibiotic medications can be used to treat many bacterial infections, but antibiotics don’t always work. Some types of bacteria may be resistant to them.
- Examples of diseases caused by bacteria:
- Strep throat
- Urinary tract infection
- Lyme disease
- Fungi make up a group of microorganisms that includes mushrooms, yeasts and molds.
- When fungi overgrow in or on your body, they can cause infection and make you sick.
- Fungi are harder to treat, as they have thick walls that are hard to destroy.
- Antifungal medications, either taken by mouth, intravenously, or applied to the skin, can eliminate fungal infections.
- Examples of diseases caused by fungi:
- Yeast infections
- Athlete’s foot
- Three types of parasites, or small organisms, can feed on your body:
- Protozoa, which are single-celled organisms that live inside your body and feed on your cells
- Helminths, or worms
- Ectoparasites, which are organisms with multiple cells like ticks and mosquitoes that feed on your skin
- Parasitic infections are more common in tropical regions of the world.
- Antiparasitic, antibiotic and antifungal medications can be effective against parasitic infections.
- Examples of diseases caused by parasites:
- Intestinal worms
Protect Yourself Against Pathogens
Here are tips to help you avoid infection from pathogens.
- Make sure your vaccinations are up to date.
- Wash your hands.
- Practice safe sex.
- Practice safe food storage and preparation.
To avoid infecting others, stay home when you are feeling sick.