Germs are a reality despite our fastidious cleanliness. The human body houses its own world of microorganisms. And like facets in life, they can be the good, the bad, or the gray in between.
The Good, the Bad, and the Neutral
Germs, particularly bacteria, can be good, bad, or neither. The good are the bacteria the body actually needs to function properly and healthily. Good bacteria like lactobacilli and E. coli. produce enzymes that help in digestion of food and absorption of vital nutrients and minerals. Beneficial microbes may also produce nutrients such as the B vitamins, Vitamin K2, pantothenic acid, folic acid, and some amino acids. They also play a role in strengthening our immune systems.
In contrast, bad germs are bacteria and viruses that, on the outset, are dangerous to man. Bacteria may either be beneficial or harmful; but viruses are mostly deleterious. These microbes compromise the immune system to cause disease and in some cases, death.
The gray area germs are bacteria that pose no threat but give no benefits as well. These however can transition into either good or bad when their environment changes. Most of the germs we ingest through food or beverages are harmless when we have healthy gut flora. We have about 500 germ types residing in our gut that are opportunistic but their growth rate is neutralized by a healthy population of beneficial germs in a good gut environment. These normally harmless or neutralized microscopic organisms, however, can transition into troublemakers when the gut becomes unhealthy or imbalanced. When the population of good digestive bacteria tips to an unfavourable low, neutral germs can turn rogue to foment illness and disease.
These three types of germs can exist in the food we eat. We can get infected by bad bacteria or by certain harmful strains from generally good ones mostly from incorrect food handling. The most common of these food germs cause food poisoning:
Some strains of Escherichia Coli or E. Coli reside benignly in the human gut; but, there are strains found in undercooked meat, raw milk, and even water that can cause diarrhoea, vomiting, fever, and stomach cramps lasting over a week.
An E. coli infection can range from mild to fatal. The particular strain called E. coli O157:H7 causes bloody, wet stools, kidney failure, and eventually death.
To avoid e. coli infections:
- Do not drink unpasteurised milk or juices.
- Wash all fruits and vegetables
- Meats must be cooked thoroughly.
Salmonella bacteria cause salmonellosis, a type of food poisoning that seems to be more prevalent in the warmer northern portions of Australia where the temperature is advantageous to bacterial growth. Salmonella can thrive in unpasteurised dairy products, raw eggs, chocolate, and even potato chips. Vegetables can carry the bacteria if these come into contact with contaminated water or animal faeces. Raw food may be a carrying source. This is why hands, chopping boards, utensils, and countertops must be washed thoroughly after these have been touched by raw food.
A salmonella infection is dangerous for infants, the elderly, and people with chronic conditions. If left untreated, this infection can travel through the bloodstream to compromise other organs and even lead to death.
Staphylococcus aureus (“Golden Staph”)
The Golden Staph is a common bacterium that usually thrives harmlessly on the skin and nose. Although it is generally harmless on our outside, it gets ugly once it makes its way inside the body through food, air, or wounds. While this bacterium multiplies, it produces a toxin that is heat resistant and therefore impervious to breakdown from cooking or reheating. This toxin is what causes food poisoning with the ubiquitous symptoms of nausea, diarrhoea, and stomach pains.
Staphylococcus aureus likes to grow in sweet and salty foods such as ham, custard filled baked goods, salads, and sausages.
Campylobacteriosis is the second most common form of gastrointestinal disease. Campylobacter bacteria reside harmlessly in chicken and cattle but when passed on to people, can cause bloody diarrhoea, fever, stomach aches, and vomiting two to five days after exposure. The germ can spread through eating undercooked poultry and meat, drinking contaminated water or unpasteurised milk. Infected people, dogs, cats, and other farm animals that carry these bacteria can infect other individuals as well through contact.
Clostridium food poisoning can occur within an estimated 12-36 hours after consumption of infected food. Food may be infected if these have undergone poor food handling procedures at home, restaurant, or factory. The clostridium bacteria pass through food coming from contaminated soil, cows, poultry, fish, and shellfish.
One strain in the clostridium group causes as severe type of food poisoning called botulism. As the bacteria grow in the food, it manufactures a poisonous by-product, a neurotoxin. Early symptoms are universal food poisoning signs like diarrhoea and vomiting but these are soon followed by neurological symptoms such as:
- drooping eyelids
- face becomes slack and expressionless
- muscles shutting down starting at the temples and forehead and continuing slowly down the body. Arms and legs gradually weaken.
- Vertigo and double vision
- Constipation replaces diarrhoea
- Difficulty talking, swallowing, and breathing
Unless a person with botulism gets properly treated, the disease can be fatal within 3-7 days.
Fortunately, clostridium infections and in consequence, botulism, is rare in Australia. Still, this can be a concern as the disease can cause paralysis, if not, death.
Unlike other germs, listeria does not need warm or room temperature to reproduce. It can multiply very well in food stored in the cold environment of a fridge.
Listeriosis is a food-related bacterial infection which is particularly dangerous to pregnant women and their foetuses, people over 50 years old, and those with feeble immune systems.
One of the foods that carry the highest risk for listeriosis is pre-sliced deli meats and ready-to-eat poultry. An Australian study estimated that processed luncheon meats may actually be the offender of about 40% of human listeriosis cases in Australia annually.
Vibrio parahaemolyticus is a saltwater-loving bacteria found in shellfish and other seafood. Ingesting raw oysters or undercooked clams carrying vibrio, for instance, may cause watery diarrhoea and abdominal cramps accompanied occasionally with nausea, vomiting, fever, and headache.
Although healthy individuals may not have much to be concerned by a vibrio infection aside from the above symptoms, those with compromised immune systems or have a history of liver disease may find themselves vulnerable to septicaemia (blood poisoning).
If campylobacter holds second place as most common gastric infectious microbe, the norovirus places first. As per its cognomen, norovirus is not a bacterium and is therefore not responsive to antibiotic treatments. Treatment simply involves adequate rest, hydration, and a wait for the body to conquer the infection.
Norovirus causes viral gastroenteritis or the stomach flu. This virus is highly infectious and can be acquired from contaminated food, water, surfaces, and other people. Children, the elderly, and those with weak immune systems are particularly susceptible.
A new strained dubbed “Sydney 2012” causes violent, projectile vomiting. This strain is an Australian “export ” which has spread to France, Japan, and the U.K. where it is now a dominant strain, according to Britain’s Health Protection Agency.