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What are infectious diseases?

Infectious diseases are illnesses caused by harmful organisms (pathogens) that get into your body from the outside. Pathogens that cause infectious diseases are viruses, bacteria, fungi, parasites and, rarely, prions. You can get infectious diseases from other people, bug bites and contaminated food, water or soil.

What’s the difference between infectious diseases and noninfectious diseases?

Infectious diseases are caused by harmful organisms that get into your body from the outside, like viruses and bacteria. Noninfectious diseases aren’t caused by outside organisms, but by genetics, anatomical differences, getting older and the environment you live in. You can’t get noninfectious diseases from other people, by getting a bug bite or from your food.

The flu, measles, HIV, strep throat, COVID-19 and salmonella are all examples of infectious diseases. Cancer, diabetes, congestive heart failure and Alzheimer’s disease are all examples of noninfectious diseases.

What are the types of infectious diseases?

Infectious diseases can be viral, bacterial, parasitic or fungal infections. There’s also a rare group of infectious diseases known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs).

  • Viral infections. Viruses are a piece of information (DNA or RNA) inside of a protective shell (capsid). Viruses are much smaller than your cells and have no way to reproduce on their own. They get inside your cells and use your cells’ machinery to make copies of themselves.
  • Bacterial infections. Bacteria are single-celled organisms with their instructions written on a small piece of DNA. Bacteria are all around us, including inside of our body and on our skin. Many bacteria are harmless or even helpful, but certain bacteria release toxins that can make you sick.
  • Fungal infections. Like bacteria, there are many different fungi. They live on and in your body. When your fungi get overgrown or when harmful fungi get into your body through your mouth, your nose or a cut in your skin, you can get sick.
  • Parasitic infections. Parasites use the bodies of other organisms to live and reproduce. Parasites include worms (helminths) and some single-celled organisms (protozoa).
  • Transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs/prion diseases). TSEs are caused by prions — faulty proteins that cause other proteins in your body, usually in your brain, to become faulty as well. Your body is unable to use these proteins or get rid of them, so they build up and make you sick. Prions are an extremely rare cause of infectious diseases.

What are common infectious diseases?

Infectious diseases are extremely common worldwide, but some are more common than others. For instance, each year in the United States, 1 out of every 5 people is infected with the influenza virus, but less than 300 people are diagnosed with prion diseases.

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