How are infectious diseases spread?
Diseases are usually spread by touching something that is infected with a virus or bacteria. For example, your child has a cold and touches his nose and then touches a countertop. The infectious virus or bacteria is now on the countertop. If you come by and touch the countertop and then touch your mouth or rub your eyes, you could get the infection. Infected fluids from the eyes, nose, and mouth that end up on people's hands are the most common way infections are spread. Hands or other objects contaminated by bowel movements are the reason for the spread of most diarrhea, as well as infectious hepatitis.
Droplets in the air from coughing or sneezing are a less common way to get an infection. Droplets can travel up to 6 feet in the air. Contaminated utensils such as bottles and dishes can occasionally be a source of infections.
The fluid oozing from sores such as chickenpox and fever blisters can be contagious. However, most red rashes without anything coming out of them are not contagious if you touch them.
Contaminated food or water caused many epidemics in earlier times. Even today some foods frequently contain bacteria that cause diarrhea. (For example, over 50% of raw turkey or chicken contains Campylobacter or Salmonella bacteria. By contrast, only 1% of raw eggs are contaminated with Salmonella.) Ground beef may be contaminated with E. coli bacteria.
How can I help prevent or reduce the spread of infectious diseases?
Public health methods have helped prevent the spread of many diseases. Proper sewage disposal and safe water supplies help prevent major epidemics of diseases such as typhoid fever and cholera. Vaccines have also helped control the spread of diseases like polio and measles.
It is normal for young children to have 6 to 8 respiratory infections and 2 or 3 stomach infections each year. Although it is hard to prevent sickness altogether, there are steps you can take to help prevent the spread of common infections (such as colds, sore throats, diarrhea, and stomach flu) at home. Follow these guidelines to help keep your family healthy.
- Wash your hands.
Hand washing is critical to preventing the spread of infection. Scrubbing your hands with plain water is probably as effective as using soap and water. Everyone in your family should wash their hands often. It is especially important after using the toilet, changing diapers, touching turtles or aquarium water, and blowing or touching the nose. Help young children with the toilet and sink to make sure they are cleaning themselves properly. Choose a child care center where the staff practices good hand washing after changing diapers.
- Try not to touch the mouth and nose.
Tell your children keep hands away from their nose and mouth when someone around them is sick. Touching the eyes after touching the nose is a common cause of eye infections. Toddlers are especially prone to spreading infections because of their habits of touching or putting their mouth on everything. Teach your child to cover her mouth and nose when she coughs and sneezes to prevent the spread of germs.
- Clean off public toilet seats before sitting on them.
If the toilet seat appears wet or soiled, clean off the seat with a wet wipe or wet paper towel. Sitting on toilet seats does not spread infection if you teach your child to always wash his or her hands after using the toilet.
- Don't smoke around your children.
Smoke in the air increases the frequency and severity of colds, coughs, ear infections, sinus infections, croup, wheezing, and asthma.
- Discourage your child from kissing pets.
Don't let your pet lick your child on the face or mouth. Pets (especially puppies) can transmit diarrhea, worms, and other diseases. Pets are for petting.
- Cook all poultry thoroughly.
Undercooked poultry is a common cause of diarrhea. If the poultry is frozen, thaw it in the refrigerator rather than at room temperature to prevent bacteria from multiplying. After touching raw poultry, carefully wash your hands. Wash any object that comes in contact with the raw meat (such as the knife and cutting board) before using them with other foods. Never serve chicken that is still pink inside. Don't place the cooked meat on the same platter that the uncooked meat was on.
- Use a plastic cutting board.
Germs can't be completely removed from wooden cutting boards.
- Avoid eating raw or undercooked eggs.
If you make your own eggnog or ice cream, use pasteurized eggs.
- Choose in-home child care over a large child care center.
Children in child care provided in private homes do not get sick as often as children in large child care centers. Children who are cared for in their own homes have the least chance of getting sick. Babies in child care centers are more likely to have complications from colds. If your child is less than 12 months old, try to arrange for child care in a home.
- Clean with disinfectants.
Disinfectants kill most bacteria. Disinfecting the diaper-changing area, cribs and strollers, play equipment, and kitchen, helps prevent the spread of infections at home and in child care centers.
- Call your child's healthcare provider if your child is exposed to meningitis or hepatitis.
In these cases, your provider may be able to give your child medicine to prevent the disease. Antibiotics may be given to children who have been exposed to meningitis. A shot of immune globulin helps prevent hepatitis in children who have had close contact with someone with hepatitis.
- Keep your child's immunization shots up-to-date.
- Don't isolate your child.
Keeping your child away from everyone in the family is not very helpful or practical. By the time your child has symptoms, he or she has already shared the germs with the family.
Written by B.D. Schmitt, MD, author of "Your Child's Health," Bantam Books.
Published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2009-06-19
Last reviewed: 2010-06-02
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes
available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical
evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a health care professional.