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Information to help you understand 13 viral, bacterial illnesses

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  • Written By: Rachel Conrad, PBT, CPT, MA
Information to help you understand 13 viral, bacterial illnesses

With some preventable illnesses like measles on the rise and the debate over vaccinating or not still going strong, some vital information is getting lost in all the noise. Do you know what the diseases are that we typically vaccinate against, or even how they are spread? If not, please read along and educate yourself!

Chicken Pox / Shingles

Chicken Pox is a very contagious illness caused by the varicella zoster virus, a variant of the herpesvirus. Chicken pox generally affects children, causing fever and a rash with extremely itchy blisters. Most people start to show signs of the virus about 10 days after exposure and the virus generally runs its course within two weeks. Although the virus usually affects children, adults can also contract it. Adults tend to have more serious cases and complications that are more serious as well. Those with a weakened immune system should be especially vigilant to avoid the virus. Once a person contracts the varicella virus, it can stay in their system and remain dormant for years—then “awaken” as the shingles virus. The shingles virus also has an immunization, recommended for adults over the age of 60.


The flu, or influenza, is a viral infection of the lungs, nose and throat. Droplets from and infected person talking, coughing or sneezing can spread the infection to others within a six foot radius of the sick person. People can also contract the infection from touching infected surfaces and then touching their own nose or mouth. Influenza causes up to 49,000 deaths annually and is particularly dangerous for the young, elderly, those with asthma and respiratory conditions or diabetics.

Hepatitis A and B

Hepatitis A is a highly contagious liver infection caused by coming in contact with contaminated food or water, or from close contact with a person who is infected. Most people who contract the illness have mild cases that do not cause permanent liver damage. Symptoms of the infection include fatigue, nausea and vomiting, clay-colored bowel movements, jaundice, intense itching, fever and loss of appetite. Prevention of the disease includes proper hand washing techniques, especially in food service industries, taking caution when traveling out of the country to areas like Mexico, or South/Central America, and practicing safe sex. Receiving a vaccine within two weeks of exposure can help protect from infection, and seeing a doctor sooner, rather than later can help prevent liver damage.

Hepatitis B is a virus that lives in the blood causing chronic liver disease. The infection can lead to liver cancer or conditions of the liver that cause death. The Hepatitis B virus is generally spread through sexual contact or sharing of needles. The virus can also be spread to infants via their mothers during pregnancy. The Hepatitis B virus is 100 times more contagious than the HIV virus that leads to AIDS. Approximately 1.2 million Americans are estimated to be living with the disease currently and most are unaware of their condition.

Human Papilloma Virus (HPV)

HPV, the Human Papilloma Virus, is the most common sexually transmitted disease, affecting 79 million Americans. The illness usually resolves on its’ own, but if it does not go away on its own, it can cause cancers and genital warts. HPV has recently been in the news because of causing throat cancer in several celebrities. Both men and women can be affected by the HPV virus. Aside from vaccination, spread of the virus can be prevented by practicing safe sex.


Measles has recently been in the news and on the rise. It is a highly contagious viral infection that involves a red rash, affects the respiratory system, lungs and breathing tubes. Spread through sneezing and coughing, the virus can live up to two hours on surfaces. Some 90% of unvaccinated people exposed to measles will become infected with a risk of pneumonia, brain swelling and death. Prior to the vaccine being available, 3-4 million people got the virus annually and 400-500 of those died from the virus. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), from January 1-August 8, 2019, there have been 1,182 individual cases of measles confirmed in 30 states. This is the greatest number of cases reported in the United States since 1992 and since measles was declared eliminated in 2000. The MMR vaccine is recommended to protect against measles and rubella (described below).

Meningococcal disease

Meningococcal disease is also a bacterial infection that can cause meningitis, an infection of the blood as well as swelling of the spinal cord and brain. The bacteria is spread by something as innocent as living with someone who has the disease or kissing, as the bacteria lives in the back of an infected persons nose or throat. Symptoms often come on quickly and are usually a fever and stiff neck. It is not unusual for the infected person to believe they have the flu. Getting treatment quickly is urgent as the bacteria affects approximately 1200 people annually and even with treatment, as many as 15% of those infected die.


Mumps is a viral disease that causes the infected person to have swollen salivary glands, a fever, headaches and muscle aches along with fatigue and loss of appetite. Transmission of the virus is “airborne” meaning that when an infected person coughs or sneezes, others can breathe in the virus and become infected also. Although this infection is now rare thanks to immunizations, outbreaks still do occur in more densely populated living spaces such as college dorms. The infection can lead to serious health problems like meningitis, deafness and sterility in men. From January 1 to July 19, 2019, 45 states and the District of Columbia in the United States reported mumps infections in 1,799 people to CDC.

Pertussis or Whooping Cough

Cases of Whooping Cough or Pertussis have also been on the rise. This virus makes it hard to breathe due to severe coughing that has a distinct “whooping” sound. The virus is passed along by breathing in bacteria that someone else has coughed or sneezed into the air. An infected person can be highly contagious for up to two weeks once coughing begins. Whooping cough is especially dangerous to infants and can cause seizures, pneumonia and ultimately slowed or stopped breathing. In 2012, the most recent peak year, CDC reported 48,277 cases of pertussis in the United States, the largest number of cases reported in the United States since 1955 when public health experts reported 62,786 cases. In 2018 there were 13,439 cases reported. Two vaccines are available to help prevent whooping cough: DTaP or Tdap and are administered depending on the age of the patient.

Pneumococcal Disease

Pneumococcal disease is a bacterial infection that can cause several illnesses, including bronchitis and ear infections (noninvasive illnesses) and blood infections, pneumonia or meningitis (invasive illnesses). The bacteria is passed from person to person through touching an infected persons mucus or saliva. The bacteria is especially dangerous to those who are 65 an older and those with underlying health conditions. If the infection becomes meningitis or bacteria enters the blood stream, it can become deadly.


Polio is a viral infection affecting muscles and can cause injuries to the nerves that result in paralysis; difficulty breathing and can even lead to death. At one point, Polio was the most feared disease of the 20 Century, crippling many generations. In 1952 it was considered an epidemic affecting 58,000 people, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The Poliovirus lives in the intestines and disease transmission is caused by coming into contact with a sick person’s feces. The iron lung was a medical treatment, allowing many victims of Polio to breathe. There are only a few operating iron lung machines left, as they have been replaced by positive pressure ventilators used now.


Similar to measles, rubella is a contagious viral infection characterized by a distinctive red rash, especially dangerous to pregnant mothers. Symptoms of the virus include fever, cold symptoms, enlarged lymph nodes and a fine pink rash that begins on the face and quickly spreads to the rest of the body before disappearing in the same order it appeared. Rubella is especially dangerous to expectant mothers and has been known to cause serious birth defects. Rubella has been called the German measles, but is caused by a different virus than the measles (rubeola) virus. Rubella has been declared eliminated in the United States because of wide-spread vaccination, but the CDC cautions that it could re-emerge as it is still common in other parts of the world.


Tetanus is a bacterial disease that infects the body through a cut or open sore. The bacteria is found in soil, dust and manure, resulting in conditions like lock jaw, breathing problems, muscle spasms and death in 10-20% of Tetanus cases. Those most affected by the bacteria are typically individuals older than 60 and those with diabetes.

Although most of these preventable illnesses are unusual to be seen in the United States, understanding these viral and bacterial public health risks can help communities be vigilant for outbreaks or resurgence of the diseases, and minimize illness and its affects—whether you choose to vaccinate or not.


Rachel Conrad, PBT, CPT, MA, works at CCH Wellness as a Technician, Phlebotomist and Health Coach in Gillette, Wyoming. Campbell County Health's Wellness works to reduce health risks and promote overall wellness among employee groups and individuals in Campbell County, Wyoming and beyond. To learn more about Wellness, please visit or call 307.688.8051.

  • Category: Wellness