Primary Pathogens versus Opportunistic Pathogens

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OpenStax Microbiology

Pathogens can be classified as either primary pathogens or opportunistic pathogens. A primary pathogen can cause disease in a host regardless of the host’s resident microbiota or immune system. An opportunistic pathogen, by contrast, can only cause disease in situations that compromise the host’s defenses, such as the body’s protective barriers, immune system, or normal microbiota. Individuals susceptible to opportunistic infections include the very young, the elderly, women who are pregnant, patients undergoing chemotherapy, people with immunodeficiencies (such as acquired immunodeficiency syndrome [AIDS]), patients who are recovering from surgery, and those who have had a breach of protective barriers (such as a severe wound or burn).

An example of a primary pathogen is enterohemorrhagic E. coli (EHEC), which produces a virulence factor known as Shiga toxin. This toxin inhibits protein synthesis, leading to severe and bloody diarrhea, inflammation, and renal failure, even in patients with healthy immune systems. Staphylococcus epidermidis, on the other hand, is an opportunistic pathogen that is among the most frequent causes of nosocomial disease.  S. epidermidis is a member of the normal microbiota of the skin, where it is generally avirulent. However, in hospitals, it can also grow in biofilms that form on catheters, implants, or other devices that are inserted into the body during surgical procedures. Once inside the body, S. epidermidis can cause serious infections such as endocarditis, and it produces virulence factors that promote the persistence of such infections.

Other members of the normal microbiota can also cause opportunistic infections under certain conditions. This often occurs when microbes that reside harmlessly in one body location end up in a different body system, where they cause disease. For example, E. coli normally found in the large intestine can cause a urinary tract infection if it enters the bladder. This is the leading cause of urinary tract infections among women.

Members of the normal microbiota may also cause disease when a shift in the environment of the body leads to overgrowth of a particular microorganism. For example, the yeast Candida is part of the normal microbiota of the skin, mouth, intestine, and vagina, but its population is kept in check by other organisms of the microbiota. If an individual is taking antibacterial medications, however, bacteria that would normally inhibit the growth of Candida can be killed off, leading to a sudden growth in the population of Candida, which is not affected by antibacterial medications because it is a fungus. An overgrowth of Candida can manifest as oral thrush (growth on mouth, throat, and tongue), a vaginal yeast infection, or cutaneous candidiasis. Other scenarios can also provide opportunities for Candida infections. Untreated diabetes can result in a high concentration of glucose in the saliva, which provides an optimal environment for the growth of Candida, resulting in thrush. Immunodeficiencies such as those seen in patients with HIV, AIDS, and cancer also lead to higher incidence of thrush. Vaginal yeast infections can result from decreases in estrogen levels during the menstruation or menopause. The amount of glycogen available to lactobacilli in the vagina is controlled by levels of estrogen; when estrogen levels are low, lactobacilli produce less lactic acid. The resultant increase in vaginal pH allows overgrowth of Candida in the vagina.


Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: