What kinds of illnesses does an infectious disease specialist treat?
Infectious disease physicians are trained to diagnose and treat illnesses caused by other living organisms: bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites. In other words, infections. These organisms can involve every system and organ of the body. They are capable of causing a vast variety of illnesses, from the common cold, pneumonia, urinary tract infections, athlete’s foot, and chicken pox to more exotic and dangerous diseases like the Zika virus, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), Lyme disease, and malaria. Many are easily diagnosed, prevented, or treated, but others are challenging. And for some, such as rabies, there are no cures.
What are the symptoms of an infectious disease?
The most common indications of most infectious diseases are fever, chills, sweats, fatigue, and, in some cases, rashes. Most people with symptoms of infections first present to their primary physicians and then may be referred to an infectious disease specialist who will try to diagnose their illness and treat the specific organism at the root of the disease.
How are the organisms transmitted?
Some infectious agents are passed from person to person, either by direct contact or contact with contaminated objects such as doorknobs and water faucets. Some are transmitted by insect or animal bites, and still others by contaminated food or water. Infectious disease specialists investigate possible scenarios—travel, pets, hobbies, employment, meals, exposure to other sick people, etc.—that could help identify the source of the illness.
What are some of the recent advances in this field?
There have been some incredible advances made in the diagnosis and treatment of many infectious diseases in the last few years and most people are familiar with the development of more effective medications for HIV and the hepatitis C virus. There have also been significant advances in the battle to treat resistant bacteria such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, and Clostridium difficile, or C. difficile, which, fed by overuse of broad-spectrum antibiotics, are becoming more common and harder to eradicate than they used to be.
All hospitals now devote significant resources to educating physicians and staff in how to control the overprescribing of antibiotics in hospitals and limit the spread of resistant bacteria. In addition, there has been a concerted effort to reduce the risk of hospital-acquired infections so that patients don’t emerge with illnesses they picked up during their stays. In this effort, there have been major improvements in food handling, air handling, equipment sterilization, staff cleanliness, instrument design, when and how to place patients in isolation, and how to maintain a safe hospital environment. The amount of time a patient spends in a hospital has also gained attention. As a rule, the faster patients are discharged, the better off they are.
What are the most common infectious diseases in the Hudson Valley?
Many diseases are more prevalent in certain geographic regions. Endemic to the Hudson Valley are tick-borne illnesses, such as Lyme disease, ehrlichia, and anaplasmosis as well as babesiosis. The number of cases of these tick-borne diseases continues to increase regionally. Each of these can cause a different set of symptoms and requires different testing and treatment.
What can people do to avoid them?
First, of course, is to live a healthy lifestyle, with good nutrition, plenty of exercise, and no smoking. Washing your hands at every opportunity is certainly extremely helpful, as are appropriate immunizations, including flu and pneumonia vaccines. Another good practice is to stay home when you are sick to prevent spreading your contagious diseases to others.
Finally, if you plan to travel abroad, you should consider consulting an infectious disease physician prior to departure to discuss appropriate vaccinations and medications that can help ward off illnesses that are more prevalent in other countries.
Dr. Marc Tack, an Infectious Disease and Internal Medicine specialist, is Director of Infectious Diseases at HealthAlliance Hospital in Kingston.
HealthAlliance Hospital: Broadway Campus
A member of the Westchester Medical Center Health Network (WMCHealth)
Kingston, NY 12401
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