Living with cystic fibrosis or CF can weigh heavily on your every day routine. With the amount of medications and treatments that you constantly need to take, you are at greater risk of catching germs and developing infections. Such infections can cause harm to your lungs, in turn leading to severe or worsening lung disease. For this reason, it is important that you are aware of what germs are, why they are particularly dangerous if you have CF, and what you can do to prevent their spreading.
What are germs and how do they spread?
Germs are microorganisms’ that tend to cause infections. There are four main types of germs - bacteria, viruses, fungi, and protozoa. While germs are not visible to the naked eye, they are everywhere! They exist all around us - in the air, in foods, in water, as well as in plants and animals. Particular types of germs can thrive in cold environments, while others need heat in order to grow.
Germs have the ability to grow and multiply and they can spread in numerous ways:
- Through direct contact (from shaking hands, kissing, or hugging another individual);
- Through indirect contact (from touching something with germs already on it and then touching a part of your body – such as your eyes, mouth, or nose);
- Through the air (from droplets containing germs that are released when an individual coughs or sneezes);
- By sharing personal items;
- By inhaling larger droplets containing germs in a more hazardous environment
Why are germs considered especially dangerous for individuals with CF?
If you have CF, then you understand how your disease causes build-up of mucus in major organs, such as your lungs, liver, pancreas and reproductive organs. This excessive amount of mucus allows germs to thrive and multiply within your body. When your body’s white blood cells begin to attack the germs, this causes your lungs to become inflamed. In turn, the inflammation continues to create more and more mucus, blocking airways and making you more susceptible to lung infections. Despite your efforts to take good care of yourself and treat your disease, germs are inevitable. They can worm their way into any host (human or animal). Several studies have shown that individuals with CF are at an increased risk of spreading particular germs among other individuals with the same disease. A few of these germs include:
Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA)
MRSA is a bacterium that can spread from one individual to another, such as through shaking hands, kissing, hugging, or touching objects that already have the bacteria on them. MRSA are strains of Staphylococcus aureus that are resistant to antibiotics and they cause a variety of problems – ranging from skin infections to bloodstream infections.
Burkholderia cepacia complex (B.cepacia)
Burkholderia cepacia complex is the name of a group of germs that thrive in damp or wet spaces – such as water or soil. A few of these species are often difficult to treat once they have infected an individual’s lungs. B. cepacia is a known cause for infections and often times, the germs are resistant to certain antibiotics.
Pseudomonas aeruginosa (P. aeruginosa)
Pseudomonas is a common bacterium that is found in various environments. It can cause life-threatening infections in humans, animals, and even plants. Pseudomonas includes thousands and thousands of different strains – many of which can be difficult to treat. Medical research shows that individuals with CF catch P. aeruginosa through direct contact.
Nontuberculous mycobacteria (NTM)
Nontuberculous mycobacteria are tiny organisms that are found in soil and water. This group of bacteria causes the commonly known “NTM lung infection”. NTM lung infection occurs when an individual inhales droplets of this bacterium from the environment. NTM in individuals with CF can cause slowly advancing and life-threatening behavior – such as chronic pulmonary infection.
Aspergillus is a genus that contains hundreds of mold species. It is a type of fungus that can be found both indoors and outdoors. Aspergillus triggers a disease that is known as Aspergillosis. This disease typically develops in individuals who have lung disease or weakened immune systems.
Influzena, also known as the flu, is a virus that is highly contagious among all individuals. It causes symptoms such as tiredness, headache, fever and chills, persistent cough, sore throat, and aches throughout the body. However, for individuals with CF, the flu can lead to developing severe lung infection.
How can germs be avoided?
As we are all well aware, we cannot always completely avoid germs. However, as an individual with CF, you can lower your risk of catching or spreading germs to other individuals. Consider the following:
Wash your hands frequently using soap and water. Do so:
- after sneezing;
- after coughing;
- after blowing your nose;
- after going to the bathroom;
- after chest physiotherapy;
- after touching shared items and surfaces;
- after touching or cuddling with pets;
- after cleaning up after pets;
- before eating;
- before drinking liquids;
- before taking any medication;
- before and after visiting your doctor;
- before and after visiting a health care facility;
- before and after cleaning;
- before and after breathing treatments
- Cover your mouth when you cough.
- Use a tissue whenever you sneeze or cough, throw it away and then wash your hands afterwards.
- Keep up to date with your vaccinations. Getting influenza vaccine once a year is especially important if you have CF.
- Encourage your family and friends to get vaccinated so that you are all likely to reduce the spreading of germs around your frequent environments.
- Consider letting your school or place of work know about CF and the dangers of germ spreading. While it is your right to disclose any information about your personal health, you should consider this is an option to keep everyone around you staying healthy and aware.
- Avoid certain activities - such as mowing the lawn or renovating - that involve frequent contact with dirt or dust.
- Do not share your personal items - such as your toothbrush, towels, glasses, respiratory equipment, and more - with others.
- Clean, disinfect, rinse and air dry your nebulizer.
- Wear a mask when you enter a hospital or another health care facility.
- Include other practices in your daily routine - such as exercising, eating healthy foods, drinking plenty of fluids, and managing your stress levels.
As some point in our lives, we all get sick. When this happens, we do our best to take care of ourselves by resting, staying hydrated, treating our symptoms, and most important: practicing good hygiene. If you have CF, then you have an increased risk of contracting germs. These germs can spread to the extent of 6 feet through droplets released in the air, just from a simple cough or sneeze. They can worsen your symptoms and cause severe lung damage. It is in your best interest to keep away from other individuals who are sick or who also have CF. Moreover, it is recommended that you avoid direct physical contact with other individuals with CF – such as shaking hands, hugging, kissing, sharing items, taking the same fitness class or being close together in tightly confined spaces.
Speak with your doctor and CF care team so that they can help answer any questions or concerns you may have about how germs can affect your health and what more you can do to avoid their spreading. While you may not be able to stop the germs, you can do your best to contain them. After all, preventing is better than treating.