Why Should I Care About Germs?

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Why Should I Care About Germs?

You may think germs are something you don't have to worry about — only the people selling toilet cleaners on TV are concerned with germs.

But germs are tiny organisms that can cause disease — and they're so small that they can creep into your system without you noticing. You even need a microscope to see them. To stay healthy, it helps to give some thought to germs.

Germs Basics

The term germs is really just a generic word for four different types of organisms: bacteria, viruses, fungi, and protozoa.

Bacteria are tiny, single-celled organisms that are found throughout nature, including in the bodies of human beings. A certain number of bacteria are good for our bodies — they help keep the digestive system in working order and keep harmful bacteria from moving in. Some bacteria are even used to produce medicines and vaccines.

But bacteria can cause trouble, too — ever had a urinary tract infection or strep throat? These infections are caused by bacteria.

Viruses are even smaller than bacteria and can't live on their own. In order to survive, grow, and reproduce, they need to be inside other living organisms. Most viruses can only live for a very short time outside other living cells. For example, they can stay on surfaces like a countertop or toilet seat in infected bodily fluids for a short period of time, but they quickly die there unless a live host comes along. But some viruses, such as the kind that cause hepatitis (an infection of the liver), can survive on surfaces for a week or longer and still be able to cause infections.

Once they've moved into your body, viruses spread easily and can make you quite sick. Viruses are responsible for not-so-serious diseases like colds as well as extremely serious diseases like smallpox.

Fungi (pronounced: fun-jye) are multi-celled, plant-like organisms that usually aren't dangerous in a healthy person. Fungi can't produce their own food from soil, water, and air, so instead, they get nutrition from plants, food, and animals in damp, warm environments.

Two common fungal infections are athlete's foot and ringworm. People who have weakened immune systems (from diseases like AIDS or cancer) may develop more serious fungal infections.

Protozoa (pronounced: pro-toe-zo-uh) are one-celled organisms like bacteria. Protozoa love moisture, so intestinal infections and other diseases they cause are often spread through contaminated water.

Once organisms like bacteria, viruses, fungi, and protozoa invade your body, they get ready to stay for a while. These germs draw all their energy from you! They may damage or destroy some of your own healthy cells. As they use up your nutrients and energy, most will produce waste products, known as toxins.

Some toxins cause the annoying symptoms of common colds or flu-like infections, such as sniffles, sneezing, coughing, and diarrhea. But other toxins can cause high fever, increased heart rate, and even life-threatening illness.

If you're not feeling well and visit your doctor, he or she may order testing to examine your blood and other fluids under a microscope or perform cultures to determine which germs (if any) are making you sick.

How Can I Protect Myself From Germs?

The best way to prevent the infections that germs cause is by protecting yourself. Because most germs are spread through the air in sneezes or coughs or through bodily fluids like saliva, semen, vaginal fluid, or blood. If you or someone else is sick, your best bet is to limit contact with those substances.

Washing your hands often is absolutely the best way to stop germs from getting into your body. When should you wash? After using the bathroom, after blowing your nose or coughing, after touching any pets or animals, after gardening, or before and after visiting a sick relative or friend. And of course you should wash your hands before eating or cooking.

There's a right way to wash hands, too — you need to soap up well using warm water and plenty of soap, then rub your hands vigorously together for 15 seconds (away from the water). Rinse your hands and finish by drying them thoroughly on a clean towel. It's a good idea to carry hand sanitizer with you for times when you are eating out or not near a sink.

If you spend any time in the kitchen, you'll have many opportunities to get rid of germs. Be sure to use proper food-handling techniques, like using separate cutting boards, utensils, and towels for preparing uncooked meat and poultry.

Another way to fight infections from germs is to make sure you have the right immunizations, especially if you'll be traveling to other countries. Other yearly immunizations, such as the flu vaccine, are strongly recommended unless your doctor tells you otherwise.

With a little prevention, you can keep harmful germs out of your way!



Your Medical Records

Don't look now, but you're being followed. You have been, in fact, since the day you were born. The good news is that the people following you are doctors, nurses, and other health care providers. And the way they're tracking you is on paper, through your personal medical history.

What Are Medical Records?

Each time you hop up on a doctor's exam table or roll up your sleeve for a blood draw, somebody makes a note of it in your medical records. All that scribbling adds up over time. Even if you're the healthiest person alive, you'll still manage to accumulate crate upon crate of paperwork by your 21st birthday.

Chances are you won't ever pore over all those pages. But there might come a time when you want to get information from your medical records: Maybe you'll need to provide your college or new job with a record of immunizations before you can start. Or perhaps you want a new doctor to know your full medical history.

As you start taking charge of your own medical care, it helps to know what's in your medical records, how you can get them when you need to, who else is allowed to see them, and what laws are in place to keep them private.

What's in My Medical Records?

You might picture your medical records as one big file in a central storage facility somewhere. But actually they're in lots of different places. Each specialist who treats you keeps his or her own file, and each of these is part of your medical records.

Your medical records contain the basics, like your name and your date of birth. They also include the information you give to your family physician, dentist, or other specialist during an examination.

You know how doctors often ask a series of questions — like about how you're feeling that day or your family medical history? Well, all of your answers go into your doctors' records, along with the results of any medical exams, test results, treatments, medications, and any notes doctors make about you and your health.

Medical records aren't just about your physical health. They also include mental health care. So if you went to family therapy back when you were 6 and your parents were divorcing, it will be somewhere inyour records.

Can I See My Records?

U.S. law gives patients the right to see, get copies of, and sometimes even change their medical records.

If you're younger than 18, your parent or guardian will probably need to ask for copies of medical records on your behalf. However, more states are allowing minors to take charge of their own health services, so ask your doctor, hospital, or health system about what access you have to your records.

Medical records — particularly test results or imaging studies like X-rays — can be confusing for people who aren't trained in reading them. Something that might look scary on an X-ray or MRI might be nothing to worry about. So if you do look at your records on your own, keep that in mind and ask a doctor if you have questions.

How Do I Get Them?

Start by figuring out who has the information you want. If it's dental information you're after, contact your dentist's office. If it's a general health issue, you'll probably want to talk to your family doctor.

When it comes to requesting medical records, different providers have different ways of doing things. Some might ask you to fill out an authorization form. If so, you'll want to be ready with information like this:

· Dates of treatment or service (such as a hospital stay). If it's been a while and you don't remember exact dates, ask for records from a range of dates, such as 2000-2005.

· Which information you want. Do you need the entire record or just part? Specific test results? X-ray films, blood work results, etc.?

· How you want the information. Do you just want to look at your records to find out what's in them? Or do you need to get your own copy, have a copy sent to another physician, or both?

A health care provider's office might charge a fee to cover the cost of having someone make copies. Some offices put test results and imaging studies on a CD-ROM. You'll probably have to pay for mailing the records to you or another doctor (if you won't be picking them up in person).

How Long Does it Take?

The law gives health care providers up to 30 days to provide copies of medical records, but almost all health care organizations supply records a lot faster than that. Most people get their non-critical care records within 5 to 10 business days. If records are needed faster — like when a patient needs medical treatment — the health care provider holding the records usually releases them immediately.

If you need to get records for non-emergency situations (such as switching to a new doctor), it's safest to give plenty of notice. Let the medical provider who has your records know that you'd like copies a few weeks ahead of any appointments with your new health care provider.

Can They Say No?

They can — but it almost never happens. When it does, it's because a doctor's office is trying to protect a patient's privacy or safety. For example, they may withhold medical information if they're not sure the person requesting the records has a right to see them. Or they may not release records if they think it will lead to the patient being harmed.

If health care providers deny access to records, they must give the reasons why in writing within 30 days. If any request for medical information is denied, a patient has the right to ask for the decision to be reviewed again.

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