What are microbes?
Microbes are tiny forms of life that surround us – too small to be seen by the naked eye. They are found in water, in the soil, and in the air. The human body is also home to millions of these microbes, also called microorganisms.
Some microbes make us sick, others are important for our health. The most common are bacteria, viruses and fungi. There are also microbes from the group of protozoa. These are tiny living creatures that are responsible for diseases such as toxoplasmosis and malaria.
Bacteria are made up of just one cell
Bacteria are single-cell organisms. Some bacteria need oxygen to survive and others do not. Some love the heat, while others prefer a cold environment. Well-known bacteria include for instance salmonella and staphylococci.
Most bacteria are not dangerous for human beings. Many of them even live on or in our body and help us to stay healthy. For instance, lactic acid bacteria in the bowel support digestion. Other bacteria help the immune system by fighting germs. Some bacteria are also needed in order to produce certain types of food, for example yoghurt, sauerkraut or cheese.
Less than 1% of all bacteria are responsible for diseases – but this is just a rough estimate because there are no exact numbers. Some diseases, like tuberculosis, are caused by bacteria alone. Bacterial infections can be treated with antibiotics. These are medicines that kill the bacteria or at least stop them from multiplying.
Many other infections including diarrhea, colds or tonsillitis can also result from bacteria – but most of the time viruses are the cause. Antibiotics are not effective against viruses. So it is not a good idea to start using them too soon if it is only suspected that bacteria are causing the infection.
Viruses invade healthy cells and make us ill
In contrast to bacteria, viruses have no cells of their own. This means that they are also not living organisms in the stricter sense. They are instead made up of one or more molecules, inside of a protein shell. The genetic information found inside of this shell is needed for the viruses to reproduce. Many viruses are responsible for diseases.
Some are harmless and only trigger a minor cold, while others can cause serious diseases like AIDS. Other diseases caused by viruses include influenza, measles or inflammation of the liver (viral hepatitis).
Viruses invade healthy cells and start to multiply from these cells. Without these host cells, a virus cannot reproduce. Not all viruses cause symptoms and in many cases the body successfully fights back against the attackers. This is the case with cold sores, which many people have experienced at some time. They are caused by viruses that are found in certain nerve cells and can lead to lip blisters in some people if the immune system is already occupied with other things.
Fungi are widespread
The best-known fungi include yeast, mold and edible fungi like mushrooms. Just like bacteria, some fungi naturally occur on the skin or in the body. But fungi can also cause diseases.
Diseases caused by fungi are called mycoses. These include the common athlete’s foot or fungal infection of the nails, for example. Fungal infections can sometimes also cause inflammations of the lungs or mucous membranes in the mouth or on the reproductive organs, and become life-threatening for people who have a weakened immune system.
But human beings have also profited from the beneficial qualities of some fungi. We owe the discovery of penicillin to a mold that can be used to produce this antibiotic.
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Pschyrembel W. Klinisches Wörterbuch. Berlin: De Gruyter; 2014.
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