Following invasion, successful multiplication of the pathogen leads to infection. Infections can be described as local, focal, or systemic, depending on the extent of the infection. A local infection is confined to a small area of the body, typically near the portal of entry. For example, a hair follicle infected by Staphylococcus aureus infection may result in a boil around the site of infection, but the bacterium is largely contained to this small location. Other examples of local infections that involve more extensive tissue involvement include urinary tract infections confined to the bladder or pneumonia confined to the lungs.
In a focal infection, a localized pathogen, or the toxins it produces, can spread to a secondary location. For example, a dental hygienist nicking the gum with a sharp tool can lead to a local infection in the gum by Streptococcus bacteria of the normal oral microbiota. These Streptococcus spp. may then gain access to the bloodstream and make their way to other locations in the body, resulting in a secondary infection.
When an infection becomes disseminated throughout the body, we call it a systemic infection. For example, infection by the varicella-zoster virus typically gains entry through a mucous membrane of the upper respiratory system. It then spreads throughout the body, resulting in the classic red skin lesions associated with chickenpox. Since these lesions are not sites of initial infection, they are signs of a systemic infection.
Sometimes a primary infection, the initial infection caused by one pathogen, can lead to a secondary infection by another pathogen. For example, the immune system of a patient with a primary infection by HIV becomes compromised, making the patient more susceptible to secondary diseases like oral thrush and others caused by opportunistic pathogens. Similarly, a primary infection by Influenzavirus damages and decreases the defense mechanisms of the lungs, making patients more susceptible to a secondary pneumonia by a bacterial pathogen like Haemophilus influenzae or Streptococcus pneumoniae. Some secondary infections can even develop as a result of treatment for a primary infection. Antibiotic therapy targeting the primary pathogen can cause collateral damage to the normal microbiota, creating an opening for opportunistic pathogens.
Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: https://openstax.org/details/books/microbiology