What is an Infectious Diseases Specialist?

An infectious diseases (ID) specialist is a physician with advanced training in the diagnosis and treatment of illnesses caused by microorganisms or germs. Because their training and experience cover a unique cross-section of medicine, ID specialists often are asked to evaluate and oversee challenging cases. ID specialists practice both in hospitals and in office settings. 

What kind of training do ID specialists have?  

Your ID physician has undergone nine to ten years of education and training. After four years of medical school, he or she spent three more years being trained as a doctor of internal medicine or pediatrics. This was followed by two to three years of specialized training in infectious diseases. Most ID specialists who treat patients also are board certified, which means they have passed a difficult examination and are certified by the American Board of Internal Medicine in both internal medicine and infectious diseases or by the American Board of Pediatrics in both pediatrics and infectious diseases. 

What kinds of patients and cases do ID specialists treat? 

ID specialists diagnose and treat conditions resulting from all types of infections, including those caused by germs such as bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites. These microscopic organisms penetrate the body's natural barriers and multiply, creating symptoms ranging from sore throat and fever (as in the case of strep throat) to more serious and even deadly problems (such as AIDS or meningitis).

ID specialists also see patients to determine whether the symptoms are due to an infection or not. Most commonly, the patient has a fever.

Some ID specialists serve as primary care physicians, treating most illnesses and coordinating their patients' overall care. 

When should I see an ID specialist? 

Not all infectious diseases require you to see an ID specialist. Many common infections can be treated by your personal physician. Your doctor might refer you to an ID specialist in cases where an infection is difficult to diagnose, is accompanied by a high fever or does not respond to treatment. The specialized training and diagnostic tools of the ID specialist can help determine the cause of your infection and the best approach to treatment. 

ID specialists also see healthy people who plan to travel to foreign countries or locations where infection risk is higher. In these cases, ID specialists can help determine whether special immunizations or other preventive measures are necessary to protect travelers from disease. 

What kinds of tests, procedures and treatments are typical? 

Infectious diseases specialists are like medical detectives. They examine difficult cases, looking for clues to identify the culprit and solve the problem. If you are in the hospital or ICU with a severe illness, you may not be aware of your ID specialist’s visits, constant attention and care. Much of their work is done behind the scenes. Examining germs carefully under the microscope, ID specialists make a diagnosis and coordinate a plan to treat your disease. They will review your medical data, including X-rays and laboratory reports such as blood work and culture data. They also may perform a physical exam to help determine the cause of the problem. 

ID specialists often order laboratory tests to examine samples of blood or other body fluids or cultures from wounds. A blood serum analysis can help the ID specialist detect antibodies that indicate what type of infection you have. Often these advanced studies can further explain the results of earlier tests, helping to pinpoint the problem. 

Treatments consist of medicines—usually antibiotics—to help battle the infection and prevent it from returning. These medicines may be given to you orally (in the form of pills or liquids) or administered directly into your veins, via an IV tube. Many ID specialists have IV antibiotic therapy available in their offices, which decreases the likelihood that the patient will need to be hospitalized. ID specialists do not perform surgical procedures. 

How does my ID specialist work with other medical professionals? 

The ID specialist works with your personal physician to determine which diagnostic tests are appropriate. If treatment is necessary, your doctor and the ID specialist will work together to develop a treatment plan best suited to your needs. Often you will be asked to return to the ID specialist for a follow-up visit. This allows the specialist to check on your progress, confirm that the infection is gone, and help prevent it from coming back. 

If you acquire an infection while in the hospital, the ID specialist will work with other hospital physicians to help direct your care. The specialist also might provide follow-up care after you go home. 

If your ID specialist is also your personal physician, he or she will coordinate your care, referring you to other specialists when necessary. 

What information should I give my ID specialist? 

Be sure to give your ID specialist all medical records related to your condition, including X-rays, laboratory reports and immunization records. Often your personal physician will forward this information to the specialist before your scheduled appointment. You should also provide the ID specialist with a complete list of all medications you are taking and any allergies you have. This list should include over-the-counter (nonprescription) medications as well. Also, be sure to tell the ID specialist if you are taking birth control pills; some antibiotics may interfere with the effectiveness of oral contraceptives. 

What can I do to help reduce the risk of getting an 
infectious disease?
 

One of the best strategies for preventing infectious diseases is immunization. Make sure you and your children receive all recommended vaccinations. Ask your doctor for advice about other things you and your family can do to prevent infectious diseases. 

Where can I get more information about prevention 
and treatment of infectious diseases?
 

Your doctor is your best source of information. In addition, the Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA), a professional organization of more than 5,000 ID physicians, scientists and other infectious diseases experts, can help point you in the direction of resources and additional information.

 

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