The human body is rather amazing. Day in and day out they work hard to digest food, pump blood and oxygen, send signals to our brains and fight disease. But there is a group of tiny invaders that can hinder these natural processes and make us sick- these are called germs.

A germ is a micro-organism that causes disease. The four major types of germs are bacteria, viruses, fungi and protozoa. They can invade plants, animals and people and sometimes make us sick. Germs are so sneaky that we won’t even know that our bodies have been invaded until we start to show symptoms.

Bacteria- These are tiny one-celled creatures that absorb nutrients from their environment to live. These parasites cause infection such as a sore throat, ear pain, cavities and pneumonia. Not all bacteria is bad however. Bacteria help to keep balance in our bodies by aiding digestion and working as vaccines.

Viruses– These live inside of living cells to grow and reproduce. Viruses are responsible for disease such as chickenpox, measles and flu. Viruses cannot live very long outside of a living host, however, the short time that they are alive is when they spread. This is why washing your hands is so important.

Fungi– These are multi-celled organisms that cannot produce their own food and so absorb it from other living organisms like people and plants. They like damp, warm places and are responsible for many rashes and athletes foot.

Protozoa– These are one celled organisms that love moisture and spread disease through water.

Once germs have entered our bodies they make themselves at home and use up our nutrients and energy as well as produce toxins. It is these toxins which cause our symptoms of infection like a runny nose, rash, cough, fever or diarrhea.

Most germs are spread through the air by coughing, sneezing and breathing but also through sweat, saliva and blood. We can pass germs by touching something or someone who is contaminated.

Washing your hands is the best defense against germs! Use warm water and soap and rub your hands together for at least 15 seconds (sing Happy Birthday). Cover your nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing, preferably with your arm, and then wash your hands.

Why is this relevant to the cancer patient?

The immune system is important in fighting infection caused by germs. Cancer however, as well as the treatments used to fight cancer can weaken the immune system. It is important for patients with cancer and those on treatment to prevent being infected by germs which will make them sick on top of the side effects caused by the treatment and the disease.

Many cancer patients will experience low levels of neutrophils while on treatment. This means that the white blood cells responsible for fighting infection are low and you are considered neutropaenic. In such instances, your doctor will order medication for you to help build your immunity again so that your risk of infection by secondary disease is reduced.

Having low immunity is dangerous in cancer patients as infections can become very serious very quickly. Patients are more susceptible to get ill from germs that healthy people carry without an issue. Be careful to take care of your hygiene and inform family and friends of how important it is for your care.