Infectious Diseases: Causes and Treatments

An adult puts a hand on a child’s forehead while taking her temperature with a digital thermometer in her mouth.

What are infectious diseases?

Infectious diseases happen when germs enter our bodies and cause infections. Germs include:

  • Bacteria
  • Viruses
  • Parasites
  • Fungi

Some, but not all, infectious diseases are contagious. That means they spread person to person.

What diseases are spreading now?

Several contagious diseases are spreading in the U.S. as we enter the 2022-23 winter season:

RSV: A common childhood virus similar to a cold, RSV is sending more children to hospitals than usual in 2022. Oregon Gov. Kate Brown on Nov. 14 declared a state of emergency to give Oregon hospitals more flexibility and support in caring for children with RSV.  

Flu: After two years with little flu during the usual fall-winter flu season, Oregon and the United States are seeing a sharp rise in flu cases in 2022.

COVID-19: The coronavirus pandemic is heading into its third winter with new omicron variants.

Mpox (formerly monkeypox): The United States on Aug. 4 declared the spread of this virus a public health emergency. Oregon has seen relatively few cases.

Learn more: See a forecast for COVID-19, RSV and flu by OHSU's top data scientist.

Why are health experts concerned?

OHSU experts are concerned about several viruses spreading at once because:

  • Many of us have had less recent exposure to RSV and the flu because we wore masks and avoided gatherings to protect against COVID-19. Our immune systems are out of practice at fighting the viruses.
  • Hospitals may not be able to treat everyone who gets sick.

OHSU Doernbecher Children's Hospital and other U.S. children's hospitals have many sick children and expect more. 

"Illnesses have hit our communities hard — and this comes on top of extreme health care staffing challenges which were exacerbated by the pandemic,” said Dr. Dana A. Braner, physician-in-chief at Doernbecher. “We expect this spike in illness to continue in the coming months.”

Oregon’s four largest health systems, including OHSU, said in a Nov. 17 statement, “Except when emergency care is needed, we urge families and caregivers with concerns to first call their primary care provider.”

Doernbecher is among several Portland-area hospitals serving children that have declared crisis standards of care because of high numbers of patients.

Other common infectious diseases

Some infectious diseases are or have been common enough that we routinely vaccinate people against them, typically in infancy and childhood.

Chickenpox, a viral disease, causes an itchy and sometimes painful rash on the whole body. Chickenpox spreads easily to people who haven’t had it or weren’t vaccinated against it.

The virus that causes chickenpox also causes another painful rash called shingles. The shingles vaccine is recommended for:

  • People 50 and older
  • People 19 and older with weakened immune systems (immunocompromised)

    This bacterial infection often damages tissues in the nose and throat. If it gets into the blood, it can damage the heart, nerves and kidneys. It can also infect the skin. Diphtheria spreads through droplets from coughing or sneezing.

    This viral disease damages the liver. The most common types are called hepatitis A, hepatitis B and hepatitis C. Vaccines are available for hepatitis A and B. Hepatitis can spread through:

    • Eating or drinking something that contains even a microscopic amount of stool from an infected person who didn’t wash their hands.
    • Sharing personal items, such as toothbrushes or razors.
    • Sharing needles, syringes and other medical items.
    • Sex with an infected person.
    • Being born to an infected person.

    About 97,800 people get hepatitis each year in the U.S. Hepatitis B and C can become chronic (ongoing) conditions and can cause liver cancer.

    This viral disease has symptoms that include:

    • High fever
    • Cough
    • Conjunctivitis (eye swelling or infection)
    • Rash

    The CDC warned Nov. 23 that measles vaccination rates are at their lowest since 2008 and that millions of children worldwide are at risk of infection. 

      This viral disease spreads through close contact, especially repeated contact. Symptoms include:

      • Fever
      • Headache or muscle aches
      • Tiredness
      • Lack of appetite
      • Swollen salivary glands (cheeks and jaw)

      The U.S. last had a mumps outbreak in 2019, with 3,780 cases. Thirty-six states have reported at least one mumps case in 2022; Oregon has reported five.

      This contagious viral disease has symptoms that vary from person to person:

      • No visible symptoms (most people)
      • Flu-like symptoms (about one in four people)
      • Serious symptoms such as:
        • Meningitis, an infection of the brain or spinal cord
        • Weakness or paralysis (can’t move) in the arms, legs or both

      A case of paralytic polio was reported in New York state in July 2022 in an unvaccinated young adult.

      In most people, this viral disease causes mild symptoms. But in unvaccinated pregnant people, it can cause a miscarriage or serious birth defects.

      This bacterial infection makes muscles tighten, especially in the jaw, which can cause breathing and swallowing problems. Tetanus does not spread from person to person. People usually get tetanus through broken skin.

      More than 100 OHSU staffers helped care for an Oregon boy who got tetanus in 2019.

      This bacterial infection starts like a cold. In children and adults, it moves to violent coughing fits that can last up to 10 weeks. These coughing fits can cause:

      • A high-pitched “whoop” sound
      • Vomiting
      • Tiredness
      • Trouble breathing

      Babies may not cough. Instead, they may:

      • Struggle to breathe
      • Turn blue
      • Stop breathing briefly (apnea)

      Unvaccinated pregnant people should get the whooping cough vaccine to protect their babies, who cannot get it until 2 months.

      Preventing infectious diseases

      OHSU experts say the best way to avoid infectious diseases is to keep up with vaccines. Children’s doctors offer vaccines against certain infectious diseases on a standard schedule that starts at birth.

      Many pharmacies offer both flu and COVID-19 vaccines. It’s safe to get both at the same time.

      Find a flu shot or COVID-19 vaccine or booster near you:                                                      

      Researchers are working to create RSV vaccines.

      You can limit the spread of RSV, flu and COVID-19 by:

      • Washing hands often.
      • Staying home if you have symptoms.
      • Avoiding crowds.
      • Cleaning and disinfecting commonly used surfaces often.
      • Covering coughs and sneezes.
      • Wearing masks in indoor public spaces.

      You can get more than one infectious disease at the same time (co-infections). People who get co-infections may:

      • Have more serious symptoms.
      • Be at higher risk of:
        • Complications
        • Other infections

      Diagnosing infectious diseases

      Infectious diseases have similar symptoms and signs. Your provider can order lab tests to figure out what you have.

      For respiratory viruses like RSV, flu and COVID-19, lab tests usually mean doing a nose or throat swab.

      Lab tests may also use samples of:

      • Blood
      • Saliva
      • Stool
      • Urine

        Care and treatment of infectious diseases

        For mild symptoms:

        • Contact your provider.
        • Get same-day care in person or virtually from OHSU.
        • Use our MD 4Kids app to help:
          • Decide whether a child needs care.
          • Treat a child’s symptoms that can be managed at home.

        These symptoms need medical care right away, especially in babies and children:

        • Trouble breathing or swallowing
        • Chest pain
        • Severe muscle pain
        • Dehydration (dark yellow urine or not urinating for more than eight hours)
        • Seizures
        • High fever (above 104 degrees) or any fever in a baby younger than 3 months (12 weeks)
        • Not alert or interacting with other people
        • Bluish lips or face
        • Chronic (ongoing) medical condition that gets worse

          Care at OHSU

          Vaccines at OHSU

          Make an appointment for a:

          • Flu vaccine
          • COVID-19 vaccine
          • COVID-19 booster, including the bivalent booster

            Download the MD 4KIDS app

            A graphic of a rag doll under which reads "OHSU" and "MD 4KIDS," comprising the logo of the OHSU Doernbecher MD 4KIDS health information library app.