The Absolute Worst Infections You Could Ever Get and How to Avoid Them

You’re probably likely to fear the common cold, but how often do you think about the prevalence of serious infections that could leave you bedridden … or worse, prove fatal.

These 15 infections are highly dangerous and some could be extremely close to your home.

1. HIV

Blood collection tube with HIV test label

This virus is deadly. |

  • 38.5 million people living with HIV worldwide

Human Immunodeficiency Virus affects tens of millions worldwide and killed an estimated 1.1 million people in 2016. Most U.S. citizens acquire HIV through unprotected sexual contact with someone who is carrying the virus. An estimated 8% contracted the disease by using a contaminated needle.

Protect yourself from HIV by having protected sex, getting regular HIV testing, and seeing medical professionals through trusted hospitals and offices.

Next: Your small cough could indicate a serious infection

2. Whooping Cough

Woman Suffering With Whooping Cough

Can’t stop coughing? | Highwaystarz-Photography/Getty Images

  • Affects 16 million people worldwide every year

Whooping cough, also called pertussis, is a bacterial respiratory infection spread through coughing and sneezing. The infection is specifically dangerous for infants and can stop their breathing.

Both children and adults can prevent whooping cough by getting vaccinated — DTaP for kids and Tdap for adults — at the right time. Babies are typically administered the vaccine at two months of age, while doctors recommend adults get their vaccine after age 19. Exposure to pertussis can be treated with the antibiotic azithromycin to reduce the chance of infection.

Next: Hundreds of millions of people worldwide live with this infection, and many don’t know it.

3. Hepatitis B

Hepatitis written on a clipboard

This disease is a serious form of infection. |

Hepatitis B is a serious liver infection and, if left untreated, may develop into liver cancer or cirrhosis. The viral infection spreads through blood and other bodily fluid and can be transmitted through sexual intercourse, infected pregnancy, and needle sharing.

Fewer than 5% of those affected develop the chronic hepatitis B infection.

Next: This disease may appear flu-like but actually damages your brain

4. Meningitis

Neisseria meningitidis

This virus spreads easily. | iLexx/Getty Images

  • An estimated 1.2 million+ cases occur each year

Meningitis can be caused by fungi, viruses, bacteria, and more. The most common types — bacterial and viral — are spread through person-to-person contact like kissing and poor hand washing when around feces (such as changing a diaper).

Meningitis is the inflammation of the membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord, and those who contract it can develop the meningococcal disease which carries flu symptoms like nausea, vomiting, and an altered mental state. Take steps to prevent meningitis: get vaccinated, keep good personal hygiene, and avoid exposure to infected individuals.

Next: This infection makes the list of the top 10 causes of death

5. Tuberculosis

Chest X-ray of child

Do you have any of these symptoms? |

Tuberculosis (TB) is an airborne disease, which means you can contract it from being around a TB-infected person who coughs or sneezes. Over 1 million people died from TB in 2016 — over 95% of the deaths occurred in low- and middle-income countries.

Active TB symptoms include persistent coughing, coughing up blood, flu symptoms (fever, night sweats, loss of appetite) and chest pain.

Next: Avoid mosquitos at all cost

6. Malaria

Researcher is analyzing test tube with Malaria

You have to be extra careful when it comes to Malaria. |

  • 200 million malaria cases worldwide each year

Malaria has the largest effect in Africa, where it’s responsible for 20% of child deaths. The U.S. eliminated the disease in 1951. Travelers to Cambodia, where mosquitos carry the infection, are issued “long-lasting insecticidal nets” to reduce mosquito bites.

There’s no vaccine to prevent malaria, so doctors recommend taking antimalarial medication, which reduces your risk by about 90%.

Next: It may seem like a small cold, but it could be killing your lungs

7. Pneumonia

3D illustration of Lungs

This disease is especially dangerous to kids. |

  • The world’s leading killer of children

The lung infection can prove fatal, especially for adults over the age of 65 and kids under 5. The common lung infection can be bacterial, viral, or fungal. It’s an airborne disease usually spread through coughing and sneezing.

Wealthy countries like the U.S. can afford to prevent the disease with vaccinations. This isn’t the case in much of the world, where severe pneumonia is considered a death sentence. You can prevent pneumonia by getting the proper vaccinations, washing your hands regularly, and avoiding smoking.

Next: Vaccinate your pets, not just yourself

8. Rabies

One of BAWA team prepares the next vaccination injection during an outbreak of rabies

This disease is rare, but can be fatal. | Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images

  • It’s unlikely you’ll get rabies, however, it’s possible on all continents except Antarctica

Rabies isn’t a significant threat to the U.S. However, it remains a fatal issue for other countries like Africa and Asia, where it causes tens of thousands of deaths. The death toll is higher because parts of these countries don’t have the proper method to treat the resulting infection. Dogs cause 99% of cases. While the initial symptoms are hard to detect, once the disease progresses patients will act abnormally and suffer from hallucinations or insomnia.

The World Health Organization recommends vaccinating dogs, educating yourself on what a rabid animal looks like, and getting a human rabies vaccine if you’re in a high-risk occupation. These include lab workers who handle live animals, animal disease control staff, and wildlife or parks employees.

Next: This infection proved fatal for thousands of people this season

9. Influenza

Influenza and phnemonia grunge concept

The flu virus can be more dangerous than it sounds. | alexskopje/iStock/Getty Images

  • The flu is responsible for nearly 500,000 deaths per year

Influenza strikes in bouts such as the 2017-2018 flu season, which killed nearly 4,000 Americans per week. The seasonal respiratory infection can affect any age group but is particularly dangerous for pregnant women, children under four, and elderly people.

The seasonal flu is airborne and spreads easily. Vaccinations are the best way to prevent flu transmission, however, they aren’t always extremely effective. Practice healthy habits like hand-washing and steer clear of anyone who shows symptoms.

Next: Fruit bats are responsible for this infection … and another killer (page 13).

10. Ebola

A girls suspected of being infected with the Ebola virus has her temperature checked

It’s hard to forget the number of people who died from Ebola. | CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/Getty Images

  • The average fatality rate for Ebola is 50%

Ebola virus disease (EVD) is a rare but likely fatal infection. The first outbreaks occurred in Central African villages. Medical professionals believe that a type of fruit bats were the original Ebola hosts and affected humans via close contact with their bodily fluid. Humans then transmitted Ebola through broken skin contact, blood, and bodily fluids.

The most recent outbreak of Ebola started in 2014 and killed approximately 11,300 people by April 2016.

Next: You probably didn’t realize this infection could still kill

11. Plague

A bubonic plague smear, prepared from a lymph removed from an adenopathic lymph node, or bubo

The plague still kills people each year. | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention/Getty Images

  • The plague still kills — and proved fatal for millions since the 1900s

Most people think of the infamous bubonic plague, the most deadly in the disease’s history, as a far-away threat. However as recently as 2016, the WHO reported 783 cases — and 126 deaths — worldwide. The WHO reported the disease is caused by “bacteria usually found on small mammals and their fleas.”

The early symptoms of the plague are flu-like. There are three types (bubonic, septicemic, and pneumonic) each with their own symptoms. The CDC recommends reducing “rodent habitats” near your home and keeping your pets flea-free as effective prevention measures.

Next: You think of it as a scare, but it’s a serious infection

12. Anthrax

Anthrax bacteria under microscope

This scare is not one to be taken lightly. | Dr_Microbe/iStock/Getty Images

  • The scare of anthrax infection is a result of bioterror events

Anthrax infections are caused by bacteria and, potentially, bugs that live in the soil. It’s extremely rare in the U.S. and is generally associated with “anthrax scares,” or bioterror events like the 2001 attacks that killed five and infected 22 people.

The preventative vaccine is usually only administered to those who may have been exposed or highly at risk of the infection. The CDC recommends antitoxins like amoxicillin to treat infections but notes they must be taken as soon as possible post-exposure.

Next: The fruit bats strike again

13. Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS)

MERS virus

The fatality rate of this disease is high. | gaetan stoffel/Getty Images

  • Around 35% of patients who reportedly had MERS died

The same fruit bats who were responsible for the Ebola virus also hosted MERS. MERS, a viral respiratory disease, has killed at least 750 people since September 2012. Symptoms include fever, cough, shortness of breath, and fever. Twenty-seven countries reported cases of MERS-CoV, a priority disease in 2018.

Next: No one who caught this disease has lived

14. Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease

Word Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease

Many have never heard of this disease. | designer491/Getty Images

  • The disease is 100% fatal

Contaminated beef from BSE-infected cattle transmits variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob. The average age of vCJD patients is 28, while the average age of those with CJD is 68. Both are rapidly progressing neurodegenerative diseases. Around one in 1 million people develop vCJD or CJD each year — about 300 cases in the U.S. are reported annually.

The disease is classified as “contagious” since it can be spread through contact with contaminated tissue during medical procedures, NPR reported. CJD symptoms are similar to those of cognitive diseases like dementia.

Next: It might not just be a “simple” staph infection

15. MRSA

superbug bacteria or Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA)

The numbers for MRSA say it all. | royaltystockphoto/Getty Images

  • There are an estimated 72,444 MRSA infections each year in the U.S.

MRSA, a serious staph bacteria, is resistant to most antibiotics used to treat other skin and bloodstream infections. Your risk of developing MRSA rises when you visit a hospital, reside in long-term care facilities, or participate in contact sports that could easily break the skin.

MRSA becomes a serious threat when the infection spreads to your bloodstream, lungs, and heart. Hospitals usually quarantine people infected with the bacteria. Keep any cuts covered and wash your hands frequently to reduce your risk.

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