good and bad germs

Good Germs, Bad Germs, And The Ambiguous Bacteria In Between

Image courtesy of Sanofi Pasteur via Flickr

We all know a germaphobe or two. These individuals balk at public bathrooms and keep a measured distance from runny-nosed friends; their bags are stocked religiously with various sanitizers.

These germaphobes may be overcautious, but they aren’t idiots. Bad bacteria can indeed get us sick, and practicing good hygiene by not spreading the little buggers can be a wise way to avoid infection. But not all germs are bad, in fact many are good. Seriously.

First, let’s get to the basics: What is a germ?

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According to Merriam-Webster, a germ is defined as: a microorganism, especially one that causes disease. A microorganism, in turn, is a microscopic organism, such as bacteria, virus, or fungus.

We often refer to and look at germs as bad things, but the truth is there are some very helpful bacteria that our bodies need to survive. Besides, germs are everywhere — in the air, and on all surfaces, your body included.

Most germs won’t harm you; you’re immune system is a pretty protective shelter.

Good germs

Good bacteria is necessary, and actually helps boost our immune systems. In fact, our bodies are full of helpful bacteria (100 trillion in our intestines, alone). These include:

  • Lactobacillus: Lives in your digestive system, helps protect from infections, can be picked up from fermented dairy dishes
  • Bifidobacterium: Lives in your large intestine, benefits digestive health, found in dairy and fibre-rich foods
  • Propionibacterium: Lives in skin and sweat glands, shields your skin from bad germs

These good germs are part of our body’s ecosystem to help to keep harmful bacteria at bay. Much of these bacterias exist as welcome guests in our bodies since birth, or else can be picked up through food.

Probiotics are the supplements of good bacteria, which can be taken in pills, or are used to enrich food products.

Bad germs

Bad germs come in the form of bacteria, viruses, and fungi and more. It’s bacterias that lead to strep throat, tuberculosis, and other infections, while viruses (much smaller than bacterias) are responsible from diseases ranging in seriousness from the Common Cold to AIDS and Ebola.

Some of the most harmful — not to mention, antibiotic resistant — germs include:

  • MRSA: A superbug that lives in moist areas like your nose or armpit, caused by staph bacteria, sometimes in a hospital setting
  • Toxoplasma: Lives in your brain and muscles, can be transmitted in undercooked meats or from (gasp) your cat!
  • Super-gonorrhea: Lives in your reproductive organs, causes inflammation, discharge, and potential infertility, and is transmitted sexually

But in between the most harmful and friendliest germs, there’s a spectrum of others — and even for scientists it can be difficult to tell the difference between friend and foe. Even so, most healthcare professionals believe that a healthy exposure to everyday germs at a young age is beneficial to germ resistance later in life.

How to keep the balance right

It’s becoming more and more apparent that some of the ways we keep harmful germs at bay, like antibiotics, and antibacterial soaps, also keep good germs away too. Such products can actually promote the growth of drug-resistant organisms, and weaken the ones you truly need.

Because of this, it’s thought that general cleanliness is more than sufficient than over-sanitizing with antibacterial soap and the like, and that antibiotic drugs should only be taken when necessary.

Other pro tips? Stay away from cigarette smoke (it kills good germs), and eat foods that either contain helpful organisms (yogurt, dark chocolate, feta cheese) or nuture them (garlic, whole oats, honey.)
At the end of the day, our bodies are pretty good at keeping the balance right. But washing hands regularly, especially after using the most germ-ridden public surfaces (ATMs, airplane bathrooms) is never a bad idea.

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Jennifer Markert