Different pathogens can cause the same disease

There seems to be a common misunderstanding about diseases: many common disease are not interchangeable with the pathogens (bacteria, viruses, and fungi/yeasts) that cause them.

For example, pneumonia is a deep infection of the lungs. “I have pneumonia” means “something has infected the passages and air sacks in my lungs”. The “what” that is doing the infecting could be a bacteria, a virus, or a fungus/yeast.
Except in the case of chronic infections, which are usually diagnosed as chronic because they occur repeatedly in a sixth month period or never go away, recurrent illnesses are not necessarily caused by the same pathogen each time.

For example, an ear infection can be once caused by a fungus when water is left in the ears. Another time it can be caused by a bacteria if a lake or other body of water one swam in was dirty.

The distinction is important not just because people need to understand and show interest in their health and medical care, but because antibiotics are over-prescribed, not infrequently because doctors feel pressured to “treat” their patients. Antibiotics won’t work on viruses or fungi/yeasts, those generally have to be toughed out. (Many doctors don’t do lab tests to confirm the origin of the disease-on a personal note, I’ve even had doctors send me away with armloads of free sample antibiotics, often ones that were expired–and all I really wanted was for them to diagnose me!).

List of Diseases that are not tied to any one pathogen (bacteria, virus, or fungus/yeast):

Some diseases, like influenza, have multiple strains of the same sort of pathogen (in this case, a virus). The influenza vaccine is created by scientists who track and predict what the most common strains will be in a given winter. Similarly, the new pneumonia vaccine is made based on the two most common causes of pneumonia, but will not prevent all cases (although research is being done to expand its reach).

Sometimes, a pathogen trumps naming the illness. Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, is a very hard to treat bacteria, thus “I have MRSA” or “I have a staph infection” emphasizes the pathogen, although the disease could be an ear infection, cellulitis, sinus infection, etc.

Have you or someone you know ever confused a disease with the pathogen that causes it? Share your thoughts in the comments section, then share this article with friends and family to help spread knowledge!


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