What Are Germs? The term "germs" refers to the microscopic bacteria, viruses, fungi, and protozoa that can cause disease. Washing hands well and often is the best way to prevent germs from leading to infections and sickness. What Problems Can Germs Cause? When germs invade the body, they get ready to stay for a while. These germs draw all their energy from the host. They may damage or destroy healthy cells. As they use up your nutrients and energy, they may make proteins known as toxins, which can help the germ in its mission to destroy. Germs also activate the immune system, the network of cells, tissues, and organs that work together to protect the body. Our immune system sends out white blood cells, antibodies, and other chemicals to rid the body of the invading germs. The germs, the toxins, and the immune system processes all can lead to the annoying symptoms of a cold or flu-like infections, such as sniffles, sneezing, coughing, and diarrhea. They also can cause a high fever, increased heart rate, low blood pressure, an inflammatory response in the body, and even life-threatening illness. How Can We Protect Ourselves From Germs? Most germs spread through the air in sneezes or coughs or through body fluids like sweat, saliva (spit), semen, vaginal fluid, or blood. So limiting contact with them, when possible, is the best protection against germs. Remember to: Avoid being near people who are sick. If you are sick, stay home. Try not to touch your eyes, nose, and mouth. If you sneeze or cough, cover your mouth and nose with a tissue, and then throw it out. If you don't have a tissue, sneeze or cough into your elbow, not your hands. Hand Washing Making sure everyone in your family washes their hands well and often is the best way to stop germs from causing sickness. It's especially important to wash hands: after coughing or nose blowing after using the bathroom before preparing or eating food after touching pets or animals after gardening before and after visiting a sick relative or friend There's a right way to wash your hands: Use water (warm or cold) and plenty of soap. Rub your hands together for at least 20 seconds (away from the water). Kids can sing a short song — try "Happy Birthday," twice — to make sure they spend enough time washing. Rinse your hands. Dry your hands well on a clean towel or air dry them. If soap and water aren't available, use hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol. Rub hands together until the sanitizer dries. This should take about 20 seconds. Food and Kitchen Safety When working in the kitchen, wash your hands before you eat or prepare food, and make sure that kids do the same. Use proper food-handling techniques, such as: using separate cutting boards, utensils, and towels for preparing uncooked meat and poultry using warm, soapy water to clean utensils and counters Cleaning Surfaces Cleaning household surfaces well is also important. Wipe down objects around the house that get touched a lot, such as toys, doorknobs, light switches, sink fixtures, and flushing handles on toilets. Soap and water are fine for cleaning. It's generally safe to use any cleaning agent that's sold in stores. But avoid using different cleaners or chemical sprays together because the mix of chemicals can irritate skin and eyes. You can use household bleach for disinfecting, but always follow the package instructions when using bleach products. Safe Sex Teens who are sexually active should use condoms to help prevent infection because viruses, bacteria, fungi, and protozoa can spread via oral, anal, or vaginal contact. Vaccines Another way to prevent infections from germs is to make sure your family has the right immunizations (or vaccines), which prepare the body to fight illness. Vaccines contain either a dead or a weakened germ (or parts of it) that causes a particular disease. When someone gets a vaccine, their immune system acts as if there's a real infection. It makes antibodies that recognize parts of that germ. So if that germ enters the body later, the antibodies are in place and the body knows how to fight the infection so the person won't get sick. Back to Articles Related Articles Germs: Bacteria, Viruses, Fungi, and Protozoa Germs are the microscopic bacteria, viruses, fungi, and protozoa that can cause disease. Read More Hand Washing: Why It's So Important Washing your hands well and often is the best way to keep from getting sick. Here's how to teach this all-important habit to your kids. Read More Food Safety for Your Family Why is food safety important? And how can you be sure your kitchen and the foods you prepare in it are safe? Read More Coronavirus (COVID-19) The coronavirus (COVID-19) is making people sick with flu-like symptoms. Read this article to learn how to protect your family, and to know when to call your doctor. Read More Produce Precautions Kids need daily servings of fruits and vegetables. Here's how to make sure the produce you buy and prepare is safe. Read More Food Poisoning Sometimes, germs can get into food and cause food poisoning. Find out what to do if your child gets food poisoning - and how to prevent it. Read More Infections That Pets Carry Kids can benefit from the companionship, affection, and relationships they share with pets. But it's important to know how to protect your family from infections carried by pets and other animals. Read More What Are Germs? You know they can hurt you, but what are these invisible creatures? Find out in this article for kids. Read More 5 Ways to Fight the Flu Get tips for fending off the flu in this article for teens. Read More Coping With Colds Most teens get between two and four colds each year. Read this article for the facts on colds and ways to feel better when you catch one. Read More Food Poisoning The germs that get into food and cause food poisoning are tiny, but can have a powerful effect on the body. Find out what to do if you get food poisoning - and how to prevent it. Read More Food Poisoning Did you ever eat something that made you feel ooky? It might have been food poisoning. Read More Food Safety Learn why food safety is important and how you can avoid the spread of bacteria when you are buying, preparing, and storing food. Read More Hand Washing: Why It's So Important Did you know that the most important thing you can do to keep from getting sick is to wash your hands? If you don't wash your hands frequently, you can pick up germs from other sources and then infect yourself. Read More Germs: Bacteria, Viruses, Fungi, and Protozoa Germs are tiny organisms that can cause disease - and they're so small that they can creep into your system without you noticing. Find out how to protect yourself. Read More Wound Healing and Care How well a wound heals depends on where it is on the body and what caused it – as well as how well someone cares for the wound at home. Find out what to do in this article for teens. Read More Being Safe in the Kitchen Cooking and baking are lots of fun - as long as you stay safe. Read this article for safety tips before you head into the kitchen. Read More Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor. © 1995-2021 KidsHealth®. All rights reserved. Images provided by The Nemours Foundation, iStock, Getty Images, Veer, Shutterstock, and Clipart.com.