How much do you know about germs and the products that fight them off? Learn the difference between soap and sanitiser, antibacterials and antiseptics, bacteria and viruses, and more.

Rarely has the entire world ever been so focused on one thing: germs. And yet, there’s a lot of confusion and misinformation circulating about how germs work.

We’re here to help separate fact from fiction and ensure you’re well-versed on all things germs. Here’s a few common germ-related terms and what they mean for your everyday health.

What are germs? A quick refresher

For such a common term, germs can cause a lot of confusion.

Germs are microbes that live just about everywhere – in the air, on surfaces, and even on plants, in soil, and in water.

Most germs are harmless to humans, but a few are infectious and can breach our immune systems. Examples of infectious germs include some bacteria, viruses, and fungi.

Bacteria vs. virus: Which is which?

When you feel sick, you probably care far more about a comfortable bed and a good heat pack than whether it’s a bacterial or viral infection causing your discomfort. That said, there is a difference, and knowing it can help you find the best treatment.

Unsurprisingly, bacteria cause bacterial infections. Bacteria are tiny one-celled organisms that can only be seen with a microscope. Examples of common bacterial infections include urinary tract infections (UTIs), strep throat, whooping cough, and ear infections. Bacterial infections can be treated with antibiotics (although in mild infections, your doctor may suggest you wait it out and let your immune system fight the infection). There are also vaccines available for some bacterial infections.

Viruses cause viral infections, and these are much harder to treat. Viruses are smaller than cells, and are behind the common cold, the flu, the current coronavirus (COVID-19), and even chickenpox and glandular fever. Once you have a virus, there isn’t a ‘cure’ as much as there are ways to manage symptoms, such as pain relief, hot honey and lemon drinks, and plenty of rest. Fortunately, there are vaccines for some viruses.

Immunisation vs. vaccination: Are they the same?

Two of the ways we fight germs are immunisation and vaccination.

Vaccination is the act of getting a vaccine that’s been created to fight the bug should you catch it. This is usually in the form of an injection, and actually inserts a small amount of weak or dead virus/bacteria into your system so your body can build up its own defences (antibodies). Should you catch the real thing, you should then only experience mild symptoms, or none at all, as your body has been prepared for it.

While some vaccines last a lifetime, it’s important to note that not all do. A tetanus shot, for example, can keep you immune for up to 30 years, whereas the flu shot is an annual vaccine.

Immunisation is the process of becoming immune to a bacteria or virus, and this can happen by getting a vaccine or actually catching the bug and letting your body fight it. Getting infected without being vaccinated generally means you’ll have a harder time dealing with the symptoms. Once you’ve recovered from the infection, you may be immune going forwards, but this isn’t guaranteed, as many bugs come in different strains.

Soap vs. sanitiser: Which is best?

Even if you touch a surface infected with germs, you can still avoid getting sick by cleaning your hands soon after. Both soap and sanitiser are excellent ways to remove germs from your hands, but there is a difference between the two.

Washing your hands with soap for 20 seconds helps to ensure you clean the entire surface of your hands, and in doing so, destroy any germs lurking there before they can infect you. With COVID-19 in particular, soap interferes with the structure of the virus, meaning soap essentially renders it useless, and washes it away down the drain with water.

An alcohol-based hand sanitiser is the next best thing, and should be used when you don’t have access to soap and water. Look for sanitisers with a minimum of 70% alcohol, such as Crystawash . Sanitisers interfere with the normal function of a virus, again taking away its ability to infect you. However, sanitisers can be harder to lather across the entire surface of your hands, making it easier to miss parts when compared with soap.

Antibacterial vs. antiseptic: Similar but not the same

When deciding which product to buy, the words antibacterial and antiseptic can certainly be a great selling point. They sound powerful and impressive, but what do they do exactly?

Antibacterial products exist specifically to kill bacteria. You might find antibacterial products in anything from mouthwash to an all-purpose cleaner for the home.

Antiseptic products also kill bacteria and slow its growth, but they are generally used quite differently to antibacterial products. Antiseptics are found in ointments (such as Crystaderm), powders, and creams that you put on your skin to stave off infection from skin injuries such as burns.

If in doubt, ask your doctor

There are certainly a lot of germ-related terms floating around, but the more you know about them, the better equipped you will be to avoid and manage the bacteria and viruses in your life.

If you have any questions, be sure to ask your doctor or pharmacist for more information around the best germ defence.

Disclamer: This content is for informational purposes only and should not substitute advice from your healthcare professional. If symptoms persist or you require specialist advice, please consult your healthcare professional.

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