Introduction to Microorganisms
A microorganism is an organism that is too small to be seen by the naked eye—in other words, it is "microscopic." Microorganisms include bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites among others.
Microorganisms exist virtually everywhere, and most are harmless. In fact, many microorganisms promote good health.
But when a microorganism has the potential to be harmful, it is often referred to as a "germ." There are different types of common germs that can be controlled through basic hygiene and cleaning practices. These include:
- Fungi (mold and mildew)
Germs live in soil, air, water, food, animals, plants, and people. Even with a potential to cause illness, most germs can often be helpful. For example, many bacteria that live inside the human body are beneficial, and exposure to other germs can help humans build up their immune systems and stay healthy. But in some instances, exposure to harmful germs can cause conditions like foodborne illness, diarrhea, and other diseases. Some are easily managed and can go away on their own; others are more serious and can lead to severe illness.
Germs often spread by way of:
Direct contact - touching the hand of someone sick
- Indirect contact - touching a surface that held raw food, or was contaminated by someone sick
- Through the air - when someone coughs into the air
- Through contaminated food and water
- Some germs are spread through contact with animals or by a bite or scratch
How and Where Germs Survive
Germs thrive in moist or humid conditions. In some cases, germs can live on surfaces for hours and even days.
For example, according to the Mayo Clinic, flu germs can live on surfaces for up to 48 hours and CDC (Center for Disease Control) has noted that staph and MRSA germs can survive on some surfaces for hours, days or even months, depending on such factors as temperature and humidity.
It is important to note that while the surface may look clean, it could contain many infectious germs. You need to disinfect to reduce germs on surfaces.
Cleaning versus Disinfection
Cleaning and disinfecting are not the same thing. Cleaning removes germs from surfaces, whereas disinfecting actually destroys them. Cleaning with a detergent and water is often enough to remove dirt and most of the germs. However, the CDC stresses that it's important to routinely clean and disinfect surfaces, too, to prevent the spread of germs.
Disinfectants are registered with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and contain ingredients that destroy bacteria and other germs. Inspect the product label to make sure it says "Disinfectant" and has an EPA registration number.
Viruses are Very Challenging Germs
Viruses are different from bacteria and mold/mildew. They are extremely small—only 1/100th of the size of bacteria or mold/mildew. But unlike bacteria or mold/mildew, which are capable of growing on their own, viruses need a host to infect in order to reproduce. It is through this process that viruses cause disease. In many cases, it only takes one virus particle to make you sick. That's why frequent handwashing and surface disinfection are important measures to help control the spread of disease—especially those caused by viruses.