Also indexed as: Bacterial Infection
Protect your body from infection—the invasion of
microorganisms. The best defense? A strong immune system. According to research or other
evidence, the following self-care steps may be helpful:
- See a healthcare provider
- Except for common infections such as a cold, see your provider for
help determining the cause and best treatment for your infection
- Take a multivitamin
- Extra vitamins and minerals daily may help prevent deficiencies
that increase your chances of getting an infection
- Reduce stress
- Work with a counselor or with tapes and other self-help tools to
reduce stress, which can impair your immune system
These recommendations are not comprehensive and are not intended to replace
the advice of your doctor or pharmacist. Continue reading the full infection article for more
in-depth, fully-referenced information on medicines, vitamins, herbs, and dietary and
lifestyle changes that may be helpful.
Infection is the result of invasion of the body by microorganisms, including bacteria,
viruses, or fungi.
Not all microorganisms cause infections in the body, and exposure to a disease-causing
microorganism does not always result in symptoms. The immune system plays a large role in
determining the body’s ability to fight off infection.
Some examples of infection are common cold/sore
throat, influenza, cough,
recurrent ear infections, urinary tract
infection, yeast infection, athlete’s foot, cold sores, HIV,
shingles, and parasites.
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What are the symptoms?
Symptoms of infection include localized warmth, redness, swelling, discharge, foul-smelling
odor, and pain to the touch. In more serious
cases, symptoms may also include fever, chills, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and fatigue.
Over the counter agents available to treat minor bacterial skin infections include
benzalkonium chloride (Zephiran®), neosporin (Myciguent®), bacitracin
(Baciguent®), and combination antibiotic formulas (Neosporin®, Polysporin®).
Fungal skin infections may be treated with clotrimazole (Lotrimin AF®), miconazole
(Micatin®), and terbinafine
(Lamisil®). Drugs used to treat vaginal yeast infections include clotrimazole (Gyne-Lotrimin®, Mycelex®),
miconazole (Monistat®), and butoconazole (Femstat 3®). Individuals with infections
that do not respond to over the counter medications should seek medical advice.
Prescription strength topical, oral, and intravenous antibiotic medicines are reserved for more serious
bacterial infections; these include
cephalosporins, such as cephalexin (Keflex®), cefaclor (Ceclor®), and cefazolin
(Ancef®); lincosamides, such as lincomycin (Lincocin®) and clindamycin (Cleocin®); macrolides, such as erythromycin (Ery-Tab®), clarithromycin (Biaxin®), and azithromycin (Zithromax®); penicillins, such as penicillin VK (Veetids®), amoxicillin (Amoxil®), and dicloxacillin (Dynapen®); and sulfonamides, such as sulfasoxazole (Gantrisin
Pediatric®) and sulfamethoxazole
(Gantanol®, Septra®, Bactrim®).
Antiviral drugs are available to treat infections caused by herpes simplex and human
immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Numerous drugs are available to treat topical and systemic
infections caused by fungus and yeast.
Surgical treatment is recommended in some cases to remove diseased tissue, prevent the
spread of infection, or drain pus from an infected area.
Dietary changes that may be helpful
Nutrition is a major contributor to the functioning of the immune system, which in turn
influences whether or not the body is resistant to infection. Specifically, it makes sense to
restrict sugar, because sugar interferes with
the ability of white blood cells to destroy bacteria.1 Alcohol also interferes with
a wide variety of immune defenses,2 and excessive dietary fat reduces natural killer cell activity.3
However, there is no research investigating whether reducing sugar, alcohol, or fat intake
decreases the risk of infection or improves healing.
Allergy, including food allergy, has been
suggested to predispose people to recurrent infection,4 and many doctors consider
allergy treatment for people with recurrent infections. The links between allergy and ear infections,5 6 urinary tract infections in children,7 and
yeast vaginitis in women8
9 have been documented.
Lifestyle changes that may be helpful
Stress can depress the immune system, thus
increasing the body’s susceptibility to infection. Coping effectively with stress is
important.10 Exercise increases natural killer cell activity, which may also help
Vitamins that may be helpful
Nutrients useful for maintaining healthy immune function are also applicable for preventing
infections. Vitamin A plays an important role
in immune system function and helps mucous membranes, including those in the lungs, resist
invasion by microorganisms.12 However, most research shows that while vitamin A
supplementation helps people prevent or treat infections in developing countries where
deficiencies are common,13 little to no positive effect, and even slight
adverse effects, have resulted from giving vitamin A supplements to people in countries
where most people consume adequate amounts of vitamin A.14 15
16 17 18 19 20 Moreover, vitamin A
supplementation during infections appears beneficial only in certain diseases. An analysis of
trials revealed that vitamin A reduces mortality from measles and diarrhea, but not from pneumonia, in children living
in developing countries.21 A double-blind trial for vitamin A supplementation in
Tanzanian children with pneumonia confirmed its lack of effectiveness for this
condition.22 In general, parents in the developed world should not give
vitamin A supplements to children unless there is a reason to believe vitamin A deficiency is
likely, such as the presence of a condition causing malabsorption (e.g., celiac disease). However, the American Academy of
Pediatrics recommends that all children with measles should be given high-dose vitamin A for
Vitamin C has antiviral activity, and may
help prevent viral infections23 or, in the case of the common cold, reduce the severity and duration of an
infection.24 Most studies on the common cold used 1 to 4 grams of vitamin C per
Lactobacillus acidophilus (the
friendly bacteria found in yogurt) produces
acids that kill invading bacteria.25 The effective amount of acidophilus depends on
the strain used, as well as the concentration of viable organisms. These and other friendly
bacteria known as probiotics inhibit the
growth of potentially infectious organisms (pathogens) by producing acids, hydrogen peroxide,
and natural antibiotics called bacteriocins
and microcins, by utilizing nutrients needed by pathogens, by occupying attachment sites on
the gut wall that would otherwise be available to pathogens, and by stimulating immune attacks
on pathogens. Infections that have been successfully prevented or treated with friendly
bacteria include infectious diarrhea, vaginitis, and urinary tract infections.26
Marginal deficiencies of zinc result in
impairments of immune function.27
Supplementation with 50 mg of zinc three times per day for 30 days has been shown to increase
immune function in healthy people.28 However, such large amounts of zinc can
potentially cause adverse effects. Some doctors recommend lower amounts of supplemental zinc
for people experiencing recurrent infections, such as 25 mg per day for adults and even lower
amounts for children (depending on body weight). Zinc lozenges have been found helpful in some
studies for the common cold. Zinc has not been
studied as prevention or treatment for other types of infection.
A multiple vitamin-mineral formula helped
elderly people avoid infections in one double-blind trial, but not in another.29
30 In a double-blind study of middle-aged and elderly diabetics, supplementation
with a multiple vitamin and mineral preparation for one year reduced the risk of infection by
more than 80%, compared with a placebo.31 In another double-blind trial,
supplements of 100 mcg per day of selenium and
20 mg per day of zinc, with or without
additional vitamin C, vitamin E, and beta-carotene, reduced infections in elderly people,
though vitamins without minerals had no effect.32 That study suggests that trace
minerals may be the most important components of a multiple vitamin and mineral formula for
Premature infants with very low birth weight have an increased susceptibility to
infections. In a double-blind trial, premature infants were given either selenium supplements (5–7 mcg per 2.2 pounds of
body weight) or placebo. Those receiving the selenium supplements had fewer hospital-acquired
Athletes who undergo intensive training or
participate in endurance races (such as a marathon) are at increased risk of developing
infections. In a double-blind study, marathon runners received either glutamine (5 grams immediately after the race and 5
grams again two hours later) or a placebo. Compared with the placebo, supplementation with
L-glutamine reduced the incidence of infections over the next seven days by
Are there any side effects or interactions?
Refer to the individual supplement for information about any side effects or interactions.
Herbs that may be helpful
The main herbs for infection can be broken down into three basic categories: those that
support a person’s immune system in the
fight against microbes, those that directly attack microbes, and those that do both. These
categories are summarized in the table below. Note that this table does not include herbs that
are largely used for parasitic infections of
|Mechanism of Action
||American ginseng, andrographis, Asian ginseng, astragalus, coriolus, eleuthero, ligustrum, maitake,
picrorhiza, reishi, schisandra, shiitake
||Chaparral, eucalyptus, garlic,
green tea, lemon balm (antiviral), lomatium, myrrh,
olive leaf, onion, oregano,
pau d’arco (antifungal), rosemary,
sage, sandalwood, St. John’s wort, tea tree oil, thyme,
|Both immune supportive and antimicrobial
||Barberry, echinacea, elderberry, goldenseal, licorice,
Oregon grape, osha, wild indigo
Are there any side effects or interactions?
Refer to the individual herb for information about any side effects or interactions.
1. Sanchez A, Reeser JL, Lau HS, et al. Role of sugars in human
neutrophilic phagocytosis. Am J Clin Nutr 1973;26:1180–4.
2. Ahmed FE. Toxicological effects of ethanol on human health. Crit
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3. Kubena KS, McMurray DN. Nutrition and the immune system: A review of
nutrient-nutrient interactions. J Am Diet Assoc 1996;96:1156–64.
4. Horesh AJ. Allergy and infection VII. Support from the literature.
J Asthma Res 1968;6:3–55 [review].
5. Pang LQ. The importance of allergy in otolaryngology. Clin
6. Nsouli TM, Nsouli SM, Linde RE, et al. Role of food allergy in serous
otitis media. Ann Allergy 1994;73:215–9.
7. Horesh AJ. Allergy and recurrent urinary tract infections in
childhood. II. Ann Allergy 1976;36:174–9.
8. Crandall, M. Allergic predisposition and recurrent vulvovaginal
candidiasis. J Advancement Med 1991;4:21–38 [review].
9. Kudelco N. Allergy in chronic monilial vaginitis. Ann Allergy
10. McIntosh WA, Kaplan HB, Kubena KS, et al. Life events, social
support, and immune responses in elderly individuals. Int J Aging Hum Dev
11. Nieman DC. Exercise, upper respiratory tract infection, and the
immune system. Med Sci Sports Med 1994;26(2):128–39.
12. Semba RD. Vitamin A, immunity, and infection. Clin Infect
Dis 1994;19:489–99 [review].
13. Glasziou PP, Mackerras DEM. Vitamin A supplementation in infectious
diseases: a meta-analysis. BMJ 1993;306:366–70.
14. Stephensen CB, Franchi LM, Hernandez H, et al. Adverse effects of
high-dose vitamin A supplements in children hospitalized with pneumonia. Pediatrics
15. Bresee JS, Fischer M, Dowell SF, et al. Vitamin A therapy for
children with respiratory syncytial virus infection: a multicenter trial in the United States.
Pediatr Infect Dis J 1996;15:777–82.
16. Quinlan KP, Hayani KC. Vitamin A and respiratory syncytial virus
infection. Serum levels and supplementation trial. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med
17. Kjolhede CL, Chew FJ, Gadomski AM, et al. Clinical trial of vitamin A
as adjuvant treatment for lower respiratory tract infections. J Pediatr
18. Pinnock CB, Douglas RM, Badcock NR. Vitamin A status in children who
are prone to respiratory tract infections. Aust Paediatr J 1986;22:95–9.
19. Murphy S, West KP Jr, Greenough WB 3d, et al. Impact of vitamin A
supplementation on the incidence of infection in elderly nursing-home residents: a randomized
controlled trial. Age Ageing 1992;21:435–9.
20. Fawzi WW, Mbise R, Spiegelman D, et al. Vitamin A supplements and
diarrheal and respiratory tract infections among children in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. J
21. Ross AC. Vitamin A supplementation as therapy—are the benefits
disease specific? Am J Clin Nutr 1998;68:8–9 [review].
22. Fawzi WW, Mbise RL, Fataki MR, et al. Vitamin A supplementation and
severity of pneumonia in children admitted to the hospital in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Am
J Clin Nutr 1998;68:187–92.
23. Geber WF, Lefkowitz SS, Hung CY. Effect of ascorbic acid, sodium
salicylate, and caffeine on the serum interferon level in response to viral infection.
24. Hemila H. Vitamin C and the common cold. Br J Nutr
25. Fernandes CF, Shahani KM, Amer MA. Therapeutic role of dietary
lactobacilli and lactobacillic fermented dairy products. FEMS Micro Rev
26. Mombelli B, Gismondo MR. The use of probiotics in medical practice.
Int J Animicrob Agents 2000;16:531–6 [review].
27. Fraker PJ, Gershwin ME, Good RA, Prasad A. Interrelationships between
zinc and immune function. Fed Proc 1986;45:1474–9.
28. Duchateau J, Delespesse G, Vereecke P. Influence of oral zinc
supplementation on the lymphocyte response to mitogens of normal subjects. Am J Clin
29. Chandra RK. Effect of vitamin and trace-element supplementation on
immune responses and infection in elderly subjects. Lancet 1992;340:1124–7.
30. Chavance M, Herbeth B, Lemoine A, et al. Does multivitamin
supplementation prevent infections in healthy elderly subjects? A controlled trial.Int.J
Vitam Nutr Res 1993;63:11–6.
31. Barringer TA, Kirk JK, Santaniello AC, et al. Effect of a
multivitamin and mineral supplement on infection and quality of life. A randomized,
double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. Ann Intern Med 2003;138:365–71.
32. Girodon F, Lombard M, Galan P, et al. Effect of micronutrient
supplementation on infection in institutionalized elderly subjects: a controlled trial.
Ann Nutr Metab 1997;41:98–107.
33. Darlow BA, Winterbourn CC, Inder TE, et al. The effect of selenium
supplementation on outcome in very low birth weight infants: a randomized controlled trial.
The New Zealand Neonatal Study Group. J Pediatr 2000;136:473–80.
34. Castell LM, Newsholme EA. The effects of oral glutamine
supplementation on athletes after prolonged, exhaustive exercise. Nutrition
The information presented in Truestar Healthnotes is for informational
purposes only. It is based on scientific studies (human, animal, or in vitro),
clinical experience, or traditional usage as cited in each article. The results reported may
not necessarily occur in all individuals. For many of the conditions discussed, treatment with
prescription or over-the-counter medication is also available. Consult your doctor,
practitioner, and/or pharmacist for any health problem and before using any supplements or
before making any changes in prescribed medications. Information expires September 2016.
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