The fight against bacterial infection represents one of the high points of modern medicine. The development of antibiotics in the 1940s offered physicians a powerful tool against bacterial infections that has saved the lives of millions of people. However, because of the widespread and sometimes inappropriate use of antibiotics, strains of bacteria have begun to emerge that are antibiotic-resistant. These new, stronger bacteria pose a significant threat to general health and welfare – and a challenge to researchers.
Bacterial infections can be caused by a wide range of bacteria, resulting in mild to life-threatening illnesses (such as bacterial meningitis) that require immediate intervention. In the United States, bacterial infections are a leading cause of death in children and the elderly (Howard 1994). Hospitalized patients and those with chronic diseases are at especially high risk of bacterial infection (Murray 1998). Common bacterial infections include pneumonia, ear infections, diarrhea, urinary tract infections, and skin disorders.
Under normal circumstances, people are protected from bacterial infections by a healthy immune system. Thus, maintaining the healthiest immune profile possible will help reduce the risk of bacterial infection. For more comprehensive information on the immune system and general nutritional strategies to support healthy immune function, please see Immune System Strengthening. The present chapter will focus more specifically on bacteria and approaches to staving off bacterial illness.