20 Facts About Bacteria: Organisms That Can Help or Harm

While the word bacteria has negative connotations, it's important to know that not all bacteria are bad. Bacteria can actually be helpful. Discover some surprising facts about bacteria, including how these super-important organisms can be both helpful (even necessary) and harmful.

facts about bacteria in the human body facts about bacteria in the human body

Basic Bacteria Facts

Learning about bacteria is an important aspect of studying Biology. Before exploring how bacteria can be helpful and harmful, it's important to first understand what bacteria are.

  • You might be surprised to learn that the word bacteria is a plural noun. While it's not likely that you'll ever need to talk about just one of these (they don't tend to exist solo), the singular form of the word bacteria is bacterium.
  • Bacteria are super-small, single-celled organisms. They're so tiny that humans can't see them without a powerful microscope.
  • Where can you go to get away from bacteria? Nowhere. They exist in just about every place on Earth.
  • Your body is home to a lot of bacteria all the time, not just when you're sick. At any given time, the human body actually has ten times more bacteria than cells.
  • Your body's bacteria aren't just like everyone else's. You have your own individualized biome. That's the term for the combination of bacteria living in or on a person. Pretty special, right?
  • Not only is your individualized biome unique to you, but it's also ever-changing. The bacteria in and on your body change as you are exposed to new and different things.

Facts About Bacteria's Helpful Effects

Bacteria is a part of existence. There are always bacteria present in the human body and other aspects of the world. Bacteria provide many helpful — even necessary — effects.

  • Bacteria are always present on the skin, in the respiratory tract and in the digestive system, where they help the body develop an effective immune response.
  • Bacteria don't always cause illness. As a matter of fact, having good bacteria in and on your body actually can help stop bad bacteria from causing problems.
  • You would be undernourished without bacteria. They are required for proper food digestion. They help the body break down carbohydrates and lipids (fats) so they can fuel the body.
  • Do you like sour flavors? That's good! Eating fermented foods like yogurt or kimchi can have a positive impact on your gut health. How? These foods introduce good bacteria to your digestive system.
  • Probiotic supplements are basically bacteria pills. They include beneficial bacteria like lactobacillus and bifidobacterium, which help boost digestive health.
  • How does your (organic) garden grow? With bacteria! Bacteria play a key role in breaking down household and food waste into compost that can be used to fertilize crops organically.
bacteria types that cause nosocomial pneumonia

Facts About Bacteria's Harmful Effects

Of course, not all bacteria are helpful. There are good bacteria and bad bacteria. The bad ones can definitely be dangerous, even deadly. It's important to know about the risks associated with bacteria and to take precautions, such as properly washing your hands, to avoid infection.

  • Many serious diseases are bacterial infections. Examples include meningitis, some types of pneumonia and strep throat.
  • Having too much bad bacteria in your digestive tract can lead to chronic conditions like ulcerative colitis, irritable bowel syndrome or Chron's disease.
  • Have you ever gotten really sick after eating? Bad bacteria may be the culprit. Some bacteria, such as Escherichia coli (E. coli), salmonella and listeria, can cause food poisoning.
  • There's no such thing as a small cut if bacteria gets in. Cuts, bites or other breaks in the skin can allow harmful bacteria to get into the body and cause skin infections. This is why proper wound care is so important.
  • You've probably taken antibiotics before. This type of medicine is designed to treat bacterial infections; many more people would die each year if antibiotics didn't exist.
  • Antibiotic drugs aren't all the same. There are many types of antibiotics, each of which is effective with certain types of bacteria. Don't take antibiotics prescribed in the past for a new problem, as it might not work and could possibly cause harm.
  • Antibiotics aren't foolproof. Bacteria can develop resistance to antibiotics. When this happens, the medications that are designed to treat the bacteria are no longer effective at destroying them.
  • Unfortunately, antibiotic-resistant bacteria are common. In the U.S., almost three million people get diagnosed with antibiotic-resistant bacterial or fungal infections each year.

Beyond the Basics of Bacteria

Did you learn anything you didn't already know about bacteria? People are often surprised to discover how important good bacteria really are. It's definitely important to know that bacteria aren't all bad. Learn more about them by exploring examples of different types of bacteria. You might also enjoy learning some bacteria-related information from weird facts about the human body.

Once you are more familiar with bacteria, continue expanding your related knowledge by investigating some examples of fungi. Like bacteria, fungi are microorganisms that can have a significant impact on health and the natural world as a whole.