Exposed to someone who you then found out developed a serious infection? Concerned that you may now come down with the same infection? Are you also concerned that you are putting your family at risk?
These are all valid concerns, especially when dealing with contagious infections such as influenza, meningococcal meningitis, tuberculosis, and many other infections. However, not everyone exposed to a person with an infection, will end up coming down with the same infection.
Exposure occurs when you are near someone who is sick with a particular infection, and/or come into contact with their secretions. If they cough near you, or touch you with hands soiled with their secretions, or if you handle their clothing or other personal materials, germs from them can get onto and then into your body.
“Infection does not always happen after exposure to a germ”
After exposure to a particular germ, infection does not always happen. The immune system has various barriers to protect us from infection. The skin, when intact and uninflamed, is a barrier to infection. There are immune cells in the nostrils, mouth, and gut which can attack germs, killing them before they are able to take hold in the body and multiply, causing infection. Therefore, people with strong immune systems can fend off germs and not ever develop infection after being exposed to someone who was actively infected.
Apart from one’s immune system, another factor that determines whether or not an exposed person becomes infected, is the amount, or dose of the germ that the person was exposed to. For example, if a sick person coughed directly into your face, you have a higher chance of coming down with the same infection, than if the person was 5 feet away from you when they coughed.
You also have a higher chance of coming down with infection if you touched a sick person’s TV remote control or bedrail (more soiled because they handle them more), compared to a ledge in their room. This is assuming that you did not properly wash or sanitize your hands after handling their belongings, and then inadvertently put your hand to your mouth, or rubbed your eye.
“In order for you to transmit an infection to someone, you have to be actively infected yourself”
Oftentimes, exposed persons think they pose an immediate risk to their family, and others. However, just being exposed to someone with an infection does not automatically make you contagious to others around you. In order for you to transmit an infection to someone, you have to be actively infected yourself. That is, you have to have the disease causing germ multiplying in your body. Only then can you transmit the germ to another person.
By all means, you should be cautious if there is a chance that you may come down with an infection after being exposed to a sick person. For some infections, you may be able to take an antiviral or antibiotic pill to prevent the infection from ever developing. Deciding who gets preventative medication depends on the specific infection (the potential severity, and mortality rate), the person exposed (the strength of their immune system, and whether or not they take other medications that may interact negatively with the preventative medication), and other factors.
If you happen to become ill after exposure to someone with a particular infection, you may choose to go to your doctor for evaluation, depending on your situation and the particular infection. It may be that you have a different infection, or a non-infectious medical problem altogether.
After being exposed to someone with a confirmed infection, it is natural to worry that you may come down with the same infection. However, infection is not always inevitable. Depending on the scenario, you can seek medical attention to find out if there is anything you can do to decrease the chance of you coming down with that infection. Remember, you cannot transmit an infection that you do not have yourself.