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11 Serious Infections That Will Make You Shudder

Medically reviewed by Leigh Ann Anderson, PharmD. Last updated on July 15, 2021.

1. SARS-Co-V2: The Novel Coronavirus

This serious viral infection needs no introduction. SInce Dec. 2019, the world has been combatting the SARS-Co-V2 pandemic which started in Wuhan, China, which then quickly spread worldwide. As of mid-July 2021, Over 188 million cases of COVID-19 have been reported worldwide, with 4 million deaths. In the US, over 34 million cases and 607,000 deaths have been recorded, as determined by Johns Hopkins University.

SARS-Co-V2, the virus that leads to COVID-19, is a highly contagious virus. It may present as a respiratory illness within 14 days, with fever, and cough, muscles aches, and other symptoms. Most people recover their symptoms in 2 to 3 weeks. Many patients may be asymptomatic with no symptoms at all, yet still be contagious and spread disease.

Learn More: COVID-19, Flu, Cold or Hay Fever - Which one do I have?

In some people, certain symptoms, like memory loss, trouble concentrating, fatigue, shortness of breath, trouble sleeping, chest pain or dizziness remain and have been called "long COVID", which may last for months.

With the advent of the COVID vaccines, the numbers of active COVID-19 cases are declining. But many countries still need greater vaccine supplies. In addition, new variants of the virus are being detected and are spreading rapidly around the world. For example, the highly contagious Delta variant, first detected in India, is now responsible for more than 50% of cases in the U.S. and is the predominat form in the U.K.

As of mid-July 2021, only 12% of the world's population is fully vaccinated. Some people refuse to be vaccinated, which may increase the likelihood of greater outbreaks and new variants.

2. Influenza is a Killer disease - Literally

Every year, thousands die from flu - a preventable disease. In fact, over 34,000 people died from flu in the 2018-2019 flu season, as estimated by the CDC. In addition, a total of 643 pediatric deaths occurred (ages 0 through 17 years).

Deaths linked with influenza are often due to complications like pneumonia, especially in the elderly. If someone in your family has the flu, you have a 25% chance of getting it, too.

The flu vaccine is available each year in the fall and the CDC recommends that everyone 6 months of age and older get a flu vaccine every season. Vaccination to prevent influenza is particularly important for people who are at high risk of serious complications, for example:

  • Pregnant women
  • Patients with lung diseases like asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), or heart disease
  • Young children
  • Adults aged 65 years and older
  • Nursing home residents
  • People with certain chronic medical conditions.

Antivirals and flu treatments can help with symptoms. But complications from the flu can be serious and include:

  • pneumonia
  • inflammation of the heart (myocarditis)
  • brain (encephalitis) or muscle damage (myositis, rhabdomyolysis)
  • multi-organ failure (for example, respiratory and kidney failure), and sepsis, possibly leading to death.

3. Gonorrhea: Resistance is Ongoing

Unlike flu, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) do not have a season - they are prevalent year-round and worldwide.

Gonorrhea from Neisseria gonorrhoeae is a common STD. Gonorrhea is most commonly spread during sex. But babies can be infected during childbirth if their mothers are infected. In babies, gonorrhea most commonly affects the eyes.

Gonorrhea can infect both males and females, and affects the urethra, rectum or throat. In females, gonorrhea can also infect the cervix. Symptoms may include painful or burning urination, pus discharge from the penis in men or vaginal discharge in women, pain in the testicles (less common), and painful sex.

The CDC estimates that 820,000 new gonococcal infections occur in the US each year, with more than half among young people 15-24 years of age. Adults are treated with antibiotics, but drug resistance has become a major concern.

  • Due to emerging resistance, the CDC recommends a single 500 mg dose intramuscular (IM) antibiotic ceftriaxone as first-line treatment for uncomplicated urogenital gonococcal. The addition of oral azithromycin is no longer recommended.
  • If chlamydial infection has not been excluded, concurrent treatment with doxycycline (100 mg orally twice a day for 7 days) is recommended.

4. Salmonella Leads to Acute Gastroenteritis

What do chia powder, eggs, and peanut butter all have in common? Salmonella.

Salmonella are usually transmitted to humans by eating foods contaminated with animal feces, but thorough cooking will kill Salmonella.

Every year 1.35 million U.S. cases of salmonellosis with 420 deaths occur, according to CDC estimates.

Unpleasant symptoms like diarrhea, fever, and stomach cramps occur 12 to 72 hours after infection. The infection typically lasts 4 to 7 days and can clear without meds, but those with severe infections may need hospitalization, fluids, and antibiotic treatment.

In 2018, the CDC and FDA investigated a multistate outbreak of 28 salmonella poisoning cases in 20 U.S. states linked to kratom use.

  • Kratom is a herbal dietary supplement that has become popular in the U.S. as a pain treatment and to help boost energy.
  • The CDC urged Americans to avoid kratom, considered to have opioid-like effects, due to the salmonella threat.

Learn More: Kratom: Unsafe and Ineffective

5. Bacterial Meningitis: Never Far From the Headlines

You’ve probably seen news reports about meningitis infections occurring on college campuses. This news can bring on fear quickly in any parent.

Bacterial meningitis is a rare, yet possibly deadly infection of the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord, according to the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Meningitis infection may produce symptoms like a sudden fever, headache, stiff neck, nausea, vomiting, rapid breathing or a rash.

Bacterial meningitis needs to be quickly treated with antibiotics, and vaccines are available for prevention. The vaccines (Bexsero and Trumenba) are for use in ages 10 to 25 years old; be sure your child visits the doctor to discuss this important vaccine.

There are several types of germs that can lead to bacterial meningitis, and your age group will determine which you are most likely to acquire. For example, college students are more likely to get Neisseria meningitidis or Streptococcus pneumoniae, while newborns are more likely to get Group B Streptococcus.

6. Enterovirus D68: Wash Those Hands

Here’s another good reason to wash your hands - enterovirus D68 (EV-D68) is from a family of viruses that includes the common cold.

Most people with enteroviruses have mild cold symptoms - fever, runny nose, sneezing, cough, muscle aches and wheezing - and recover easily.

A historical, severe outbreak of EV-D68 in 2014 made headlines. This was the first documented nationwide outbreak of EV-D68. Additional outbreaks were documented in 2016 and 2018.

  • The CDC documented about 1,150 cases, nearly all in children, but stated that there were likely millions of mild EV-D68 infections for which people didn't seek medical care.
  • Several deaths occurred, but may not have been specifically due to EV-D68. Concerns with associated rare paralysis were also reported.

No EV-D68 vaccine or treatment is currently approved.

7. Hep C: Listen Up About Cures

If you’re a baby-boomer in the U.S. -- that is, born from 1945 to 1965 -- you’ve probably heard about hepatitis C virus (HCV) testing. If you were born in this time frame, you are 5 times more likely to have HCV.

The CDC recommends all adults get tested for HCV at least once, including those born from 1945 to 1965.

As a chronic, blood-borne disease, HCV slowly damages the liver leading to cirrhosis, liver cancer, the need for a liver transplant, and possible death. Blood transfusions, sharing needles, body piercing, tattoos, and sexual transmission may be the cause of HCV. To complicate matters, symptoms of HCV may not appear for up to 30 years.

Antiviral oral treatment regimens can lead to cures in many patients. New oral direct-acting antiviral (DAA) agents are over 90% effective in many patients.

8. HIV and AIDS: Still a Threat

The HIV / AIDS virus has been around since 1981, and it’s impact may often be forgotten.

  • But the numbers don't lie: at the end of 2019, the most recent year for which data is available from the CDC, an estimated 1.2 million people older than 13 years of age in the United States were living with HIV.
  • Of those people, about 13% -- or 158,000 -- did not know they were infected.
  • And new infections are still a threat: in 2019, 36,801 people received an HIV diagnosis in the U.S.

But - after 30+ years of dedicated research - we have results and there are now multiple drugs available to treat and help prevent HIV.

Learn More: HIV & AIDS Update: New Treatments, Easier Options

Early diagnosis and HIV therapy can dramatically reduce the risk of HIV advancing to AIDS and lengthen lives; however, early diagnosis is key to successful treatment, so if you are not sure of your status, get tested now.

9. MERS-CoV: Another Coronavirus

SARS-Co-V2 (COVID-19) is not the only coronavirus around. The Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS-CoV) was first reported in 2012 in Saudi Arabia and remains largely confined to the Middle East (Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates).

MERS probably started from an animal source, most likely camels. In fact, you may be at risk if you have been near camels with the virus. The cases seen in the U.S. occurred in healthcare providers who worked in the Middle East. Currently, there is no vaccine available to protect against MERS.

MERS can start with a fever, cough and shortness of breath. Pneumonia is a common complication, and patients may go into respiratory failure or septic shock. The two cases seen in the U.S. recovered and none of their immediate contacts developed MERS. In the U.S., MERS represents a very low risk to the general public.

The MERS virus is spread when an infected person talks, coughs, or sneezes. To help prevent an infection, wash your hands often and keep then away from your face without washing first, cover a cough or sneeze, clean surfaces often, wear a medical mask if you have MERS or are taking care of someone who does, and, if you are infected, do not go outside except for medical appointments (and call your doctor first).

10. MRSA: An Antibiotic Resistant Superbug

Fighting antibiotic resistance has been a public health goal for years in the U.S.

For example, MRSA is "methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus", one type of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. In the community, MRSA can cause skin and other infections, and can be quite dangerous because it is resistant to many antibiotics.

MRSA infections usually appear as a red, swollen, skin or soft tissue infection with pus and accompanied by a fever. The infection can enter the bloodstream, too.

MRSA is contagious if personal items, such as towels or razors that have touched the infected skin, are shared. College athletes may be at a higher risk, and MRSA also can also move quickly through a hospital setting.

11. Chikungunya: Turning Dream Holidays Into Nightmares

Traveling to the Caribbean is a dream trip for many, but some vacationers have come home with a painful mosquito-transmitted viral disease known as chikungunya. In 2017 it was reported that the mosquito species that's the main carrier of the Zika virus might also transmit two other viruses – chikungunya and dengue.

Related: What is chikungunya fever, and should I be worried?

  • In July 2014, the first U.S.-developed case of chikungunya was reported in Florida. Chikungunya virus disease became a nationally notifiable condition in 2015.
  • Chikungunya transmission has been documented in 47 countries throughout the Americas and over 100 countries total and is also common in Africa, Asia and some Pacific Islands. Most cases are brought into the US from travel abroad.
  • Chikungunya provokes a painful but seldom fatal illness.

Chikungunya virus causes high fevers, painful joint swelling, headaches and rash. For some, the pain can last even after other symptoms disappear, but it tends to clear up after a week. Dying from chikungunya is rare. No treatment exists, but a vaccine is under development. Chikungunya is not transmitted from human to human you need to protect yourself from mosquito bites.

How to best protect yourself against mosquitoes? DEET-based insect repellents worn during the day (when these types of mosquitos are most active) can help repel them, plus bed nets, long sleeves and pants, and permethrin spray on your clothing and gear are recommended.

Related Info: It’s Buggin’ Me! How to Safely Use an Insect Repellent

As a reminder, pregnant women should not travel to areas with risk of Zika. Check travel warnings with the CDC if you are pregnant.

Finished: 11 Serious Infections That Will Make You Shudder

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