What to Know About Infectious Diseases in Veterans

Medically Reviewed by Mahammad Juber, MD on May 04, 2022
5 min read

Infectious diseases are common worldwide. Your immune system is able to fight most germs that you grew up with. If you've been deployed abroad, you may have encountered some germs you're not used to. You may have fallen sick and been treated while on active duty. But infectious diseases in veterans often appear later, after returning. Many types of infectious diseases pose dangers to your health and life.

Infectious diseases are caused by microscopic organisms. They could be viruses, bacteria, fungi, or parasites. Such microorganisms can be passed from person to person through coughing, sneezing, or contact with other bodily fluids. Some germs can infect humans through contaminated drinking water or food, or by animal bites. The microscopic organisms that infect and cause disease are called pathogens.

Some infectious disease examples are the flu (spread through the air by sneezing and coughing), human immunodeficiency virus (HIV, spread through unprotected sexual contact and blood exposure), and hepatitis A (spread by contaminated water and food). Some infectious diseases are caused by close contact with people having the disease (leprosy).

Military operations overseas have exposed armed forces personnel to several types of infectious diseases. The Veterans Administration considers nine diseases to be related to military service in the first Gulf War, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

Malaria. This disease is caused by blood parasites. Two types are common in Asia — Plasmodium vivax and Plasmodium falciparum. P. falciparum causes severe malaria and is more dangerous than P. vivax. Apart from fever, chills, and shivering, you may have seizures, breathing difficulty, jaundice, and anemia. Falciparum malaria can cause death if not treated.

P. vivax also causes high fever with shivering and chills, but the other symptoms of severe malaria are rare. But P. vivax leaves some cells sleeping in your liver (called hypnozoites). They can cause relapses of malaria months to years after you were first infected.

Though malaria is an infectious disease, you cannot get it from an affected person. Malaria is transmitted by anopheles mosquitoes. Avoiding mosquito bites by sleeping in insecticide-treated bednets is the best protection against malaria. Mosquito-repellent cream also helps keep them away. You may also be prescribed preventative medicines to protect you from malaria.

Brucellosis. This is caused by bacteria named Brucella. The disease causes fever, sweating, poor appetite, tiredness, and joint and muscle pain. Brucellosis can persist for months to years if not detected and treated.

You get this infection by drinking milk that hasn't been pasteurized. Cheese can also carry this bacteria. Brucellosis is an infection of farm animals, and you can also get infected by eating raw or undercooked meat.

Campylobacteriosis. This is a bacterial disease caused by Campylobacter jejuni and transmitted by unhygienic food and drink. It causes diarrhea, abdominal pain and cramps, and fever. You can get infected by consuming undercooked meat or poultry products. Contact with animals and drinking unsafe water also puts you at risk. Campylobacteriosis is the most common diarrheal disease in people coming back to the U.S.

Coxiella burnetii (Q Fever). This is a bacterial disease and causes fever, chills, nausea, diarrhea, and severe headache. If it becomes chronic, it can cause inflammation of the heart. Coxiella are animal bacteria, and are present in their milk, urine, feces, and birth products. You can get infected by drinking raw milk or by breathing air with dust containing the bacteria. 

Non-typhoidal salmonella. Salmonella are known for causing typhoid fever. But other members of the salmonella family cause fever, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. You get infected by consuming contaminated food or water. Non-typhoidal salmonella are one of the most common causes of diarrhea. Most cases are mild, but severe cases cause life-threatening dehydration without proper treatment. Salmonella are often resistant to antibiotics, making treatment difficult.

Shigellosis. Bacteria transmitted by unhygienic water and food are at the root of this disease. Shigellosis symptoms include diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting. The diarrhea may be mucoid or blood-stained. Sometimes, the diarrhea is severe enough to cause dehydration.

Tuberculosis. Tuberculosis bacteria enter your body through the air you breathe. If you're living with a person who has tuberculosis, you can be infected. Tuberculosis most commonly affects the lungs. The usual symptoms are fever, night sweats, cough, sputum production (sometimes with blood), fatigue, and weight loss. This is a slowly-progressive disease, and you may have symptoms months after you got infected. 

Tuberculosis is the most frequent infectious cause of death worldwide. About 1.5 million people die of it every year. If you have the symptoms, you should talk to your health care provider. They will arrange sputum testing, x-rays, and perhaps molecular diagnostic tests for tuberculosis. Tuberculosis treatment needs several months of regular medicines.

Leishmaniasis. This is a dangerous disease caused by Leishmania parasites, which are spread by phlebotomine sand flies. Though most common in India and Brazil, US armed forces personnel have been infected in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Kuwait.

Two common types of Leishmaniasis are seen in humans. Cutaneous leishmaniasis causes skin sores. Visceral leishmaniasis is more serious and affects many internal organs, including the liver, spleen, and bone marrow.

West Nile virus. This virus is transmitted by mosquito bite. Most people do not have symptoms, but one person in five has fever and headache, weakness, bodyache, and joint pain. You may have diarrhea and a rash. Less than 1% of infected people develop nervous system disease. This can be meningitis (inflammation of the coverings of the brain), encephalitis (inflammation of the brain), or paralysis. About one person in 150 has a severe or fatal illness.

Since it is spread by mosquito bite, you can prevent it by using mosquito-repellant, wearing clothing that covers you fully, and sleeping under insecticide-treated bednets.

Infectious diseases should be treated as soon as detected. Your primary health care provider may refer you to a specialist in infectious diseases. Diseases that are rare in the U.S. may need specialized laboratory services for detection.

Treatment depends on your clinical condition and the disease. Once your disease is diagnosed by laboratory tests and imaging, your physician will plan your treatment. Most diseases need only a few days of treatment, but brucellosis needs 6 weeks of antibiotics. Tuberculosis treatment needs regular treatment for several months.

Many of these infections are carried by food and water. Some safety measures can keep you safe from these infections:

  • Avoid raw milk and cheeses and other products made from raw milk.
  • Don't use ice unless it has been made from safe water.
  • Food should be well-cooked and served hot.
  • Fruits and vegetables should be well washed before use. Peeling them is wise.
  • Drinking water should be boiled. If this isn't possible, use a chemical disinfectant.
  • Wash hands thoroughly with soap and water before eating and drinking, and after using the toilet. Also wash after coming into contact with animals.

Many of these infectious diseases are rarely seen in the U.S. But the Veteran Administration (VA) health care provides expert treatment. The health care providers offer clinical treatment for war-related illnesses. You can apply for VA health care by filling out the Application for Health Benefits (VA Form 10-10EZ).