A nurse gives a young girl a vaccinationA nurse gives a young girl a vaccinationDiseases can be infectious—caused by bacteria or viruses, for example—or non-infectious. Infectious diseases include colds and measles; non-infectious ones include diabetes or cancer. Practised by doctors and nurses, medicine is the diagnosis (identification), prevention and treatment of disease. The word "medicine" also refers to drugs and other preparations used to treat or prevent illness. These include vaccinations that enable the body’s immune system to prevent infection.

A patient undergoes an operationA patient undergoes an operation

Types of treatment

Two important types of treatment—and sometimes prevention—of disease are medical and surgical. Medical help involves chemicals or drugs. These may be obtained from natural substances such as plants or micro-organisms (for example, vaccines), or made in the laboratory (for example, chemicals used in chemotherapy to destroy cancer cells). Surgery involves physical treatment, for example, cutting open the body during an operation, to remove a diseased part or mend a broken bone.

Radiographers make an X-ray scanRadiographers make an X-ray scan

Doctors and hospitals

A doctor is qualified to examine and treat people. A person who is ill usually goes to the family doctor or general practitioner (GP) first. The GP has a wide knowledge of medicine and can diagnose (identify) and treat some illnesses. If the cause of the problem is not clear, the person may be sent, or referred, to a hospital doctor or consultant, an expert in a certain type of medicine. For example, a neurologist deals with problems of the brain and nerves and a cardiologist with diseases of the heart.

A wide range of tests, including blood and urine tests, are carried out to help doctors make a diagnosis. In addition, radiologists use X-raysultrasound, CT scans, MRI scans and other techniques to make images of the inside of the body in order to help their fellow doctors discover the cause of an illness.


Emergency medicine

Some of the greatest advances in recent years have been in emergency medicine. When a person is badly injured in a road accident or suffers a heart attack, every second may count. The ambulance crew include paramedics, who are specially trained and equipped to give life-saving first aid and to care for the victim or patient on the way to hospital.

An ambulance brings a patient to hospitalAn ambulance brings a patient to hospitalAt hospital the patient is taken to A&E (Accident & Emergency department; ER or Emergency Room in North America) where specialist doctors quickly decide on treatment. If an emergency operation is needed, the surgeon and team go to the operating room, or theatre, and begin straight away. After surgery, the patient is looked after in an ICU (the Intensive Care Unit; also known as CCU or Critical Care Unit). Machines and monitors check the patient’s heartbeat, breathing, blood pressure and other body processes. If all goes well, the patient begins to recover and can leave the ICU for the general ward. Nurses carry out daily care and check on progress until the patient is well enough to go home.

 Richard Walker

Malaria is caused by a single-celled organism (a protist) called Plasmodium. Transmitted from person to person by blood-feeding mosquitoes, it invades blood and liver cells and causes repeated fevers. Malaria can be prevented by drugs. About 2500 people die from malaria each day.

On average, every square centimetre of human skin has 50 million bacteria on its surface.

About 2% of adults and 8% of children suffer from a type of food allergy. In an allergy, the body's immune system mistakes a certain food protein for a dangerous invader and attacks it. Food allergies include reactions to gluten, seafood and peanuts.

Nearly nine million children under five years old die from disease every year. Many of these could have been treated with medicines.

Antibiotics have no effect in combatting infection by viruses, so anti-viral drugs are needed—or your body's immune system must fight the invaders alone. A cold, influenza (flu), chickenpox, mumps, measles, rubella, cold sores, glandular fever, meningitis, polio and hepatitis are all examples of diseases caused by viruses.

Before the invention of the microscope, people had no knowledge of bacteria or viruses, so no one understood the importance of keeping wounds clean. Surgeons rarely washed their hands or instruments. Many more people died following operations than recovered.

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