Bacterial vs. Viral Infections: The Differences Explained

in Treatment Vaccinations

Everywhere you look today, you can see the evidence of how dangerous viral infections can be. With the COVID-19 pandemic in full swing, the news is filled with reports on all aspects of this particular type of infection. Coronavirus infections may be grabbing all the headlines, but they are far from the only type of infections that can affect you. 

Something as harmless as the common cold, to deadly outbreaks like the ebola virus, are examples of infectious diseases. Whether they enter through a cut on your skin, by eating bad food, or by breathing in droplets someone else has exhaled, the microbes that cause infections have many different ways of getting into your body.

The Differences Between Bacteria and Viruses

When you are suffering from the symptoms of an infectious disease, you may not care what caused it. If your infection gets serious enough to demand medical treatment, your doctor will certainly want to know what ails you. A wide range of bacterial and viral infections can result in similar symptoms, but providing effective treatment to help your body heal is going to depend on what kind of microbe is causing your illness. 

Two main categories of infectious disease to consider are bacterial infections and viral infections. Each of these broad categories encompasses many different kinds of pathogens, and each type needs to be treated accordingly. 

Bacteria are small single-celled organisms that are marvelously complex. Bacteria are able to live and even replicate without a host, and have been shown to survive startlingly harsh conditions including exposure to high levels of radiation, extreme temperatures, and even inside the human body, which can be a rather inhospitable place for tiny uninvited guests. 

The majority of bacteria are harmless to humans, and a large number are actually beneficial. In fact, many functions of your body, including your ability to digest food, rely on bacteria to do their job. Without helpful bacteria, you would be even more susceptible to infection by other types of microbes. This is the case in your intestines, where healthy levels of gut bacteria help keep clostridium difficile bacteria in check. Though C. diff bacteria are common and harmless in the human gut at low levels, it is considered a pathogenic bacteria. Damage to your gut bacteria from taking antibacterial medication can cause the C. diff bacteria to multiply out of control. This imbalance can lead to diarrhea, fever, bloating, and have even more deadly consequences.  

Bacteria are responsible for some of our most common and well-known infections. These can be found throughout the body. Some infections are generalized, such as sepsis, and others can be localized to one part of the body like ear or urinary tract infections. 

Viruses are relatively simple compared to bacteria. Comprised of a tiny core of genetic material surrounded by a protein shell, viruses are dependent on a host organism to survive. Since they are little more than a tuft of DNA or RNA, viruses need to attach to cells in the body of a host to replicate. Unfortunately, when a virus attaches to a cell to begin reproducing, the host cell will often be destroyed and rupture, releasing the new copies of the virus.

Nearly all viruses are dangerous and can cause some form of disease in their host. Viruses typically attack a specific type of cell, leading viral infections to be classified according to the area of the body affected such as the respiratory tract, blood, or liver.

Treatment of Bacterial Infections and Viral Infections

How you treat an infection is going to depend on what type of infection you have and what part of your body is being attacked. Some infections can be allowed to run their course without medication as your immune system is capable of fighting off many different types of invaders. Many different types of infections can become serious enough that your body will need the help of medicine to clear the infection. 

For bacterial infections, antibiotics are the drug of choice. These medications are specifically designed to attack the bacteria your body is trying to fight off. Increasingly, doctors are becoming wary of antibiotic use unless it is deemed absolutely necessary. Bacteria can adapt to the medicines used against them, leading to antibiotic resistance. This is what has made the common bacteria staphylococcus aureus so dangerous. The heavy use of antibiotics over the last century has led to hospitals and care facilities being places where staph infections are increasingly common and dangerous. 

Many types of skin irritations, cuts, and burns can lead to localized, topical skin infections. These can be treated with topical antibiotic creams and other medications applied to the skin. Some types of sinus infections can be treated with nasal sprays. For ear infections, respiratory problems caused by bacteria such as strep throat, or infections like bacterial meningitis that affect other tissues in the body, oral antibacterial drugs are often the answer. 

Treating viral infections is more difficult. The number of drugs available to support your immune system in its fight against viral infections is lower. Antibiotics are ineffective against viruses, which is why it is important that your doctor know exactly what ails you before prescribing medication. 

Despite the challenges, antiviral drugs have been developed to fight some common ailments. Herpes, hepatitis B and C, and even HIV can now be treated with medications, though research continues as we look to find better solutions. 

Immunization has been used throughout the last century to help the body prepare for infections before they start. This has proven useful in treating some diseases, but with viruses, the success is more limited. Viruses tend to mutate as they move from one host to another, so a vaccine created to protect against one strain of a virus may not prove effective once the virus has mutated. 

Preventing Infections

Maintaining a healthy lifestyle, eating well, washing your hands, and limiting your exposure to people who may be currently infected are all ways you can lower your risk of infection. Frequent, proper hand washing is currently receiving a lot of news thanks to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and it is a good practice at all times. Similarly, avoiding touching your eyes, nose, and mouth as much as possible will help to reduce your risk of infection. 

Not all bacteria enter your body through cuts in the skin or contact with an infected person. Your food can also be a route of infection, which is why food safety is important. Properly cooking meats to kill off salmonella and washing fruits and vegetables to lower your risk of Escherichia coli (E. coli) infections can help prevent exposure to dangerous pathogenic bacteria. The discomfort of diarrhea and vomiting associated with many types of food poisoning is well known, but water and food-borne infections can lead to more serious consequences and even death. 

Another area where you can be proactive about reducing your likelihood of exposure to infection is by practicing safe sex. Many different types of infections, such as gonorrhea and chlamydia, are bacterial in origin, while herpes and HIV are both examples of viral sexually transmitted infections.

When to See a Doctor About an Infection

Not every infection requires medical treatment by a doctor. The common cold, for instance, is technically an upper respiratory tract infection, but in most cases, your immune system will keep you safe without needing help from a healthcare professional. Even in cases where mild food poisoning has you fighting a bout of diarrhea and vomiting, it is possible that rest and consistent intake of fluids will allow the infection to clear up over a period of hours or a couple days. 

If your symptoms persist beyond a few days, or if they worsen into worrisome conditions like vomiting blood, blood in the stool, or a severely elevated temperature, you should seek medical attention quickly.

At TrustCare, we are here to help you get the care you need when you need it. During the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, we have rolled out telehealth options to help you begin getting the care you need right at home, and you can book same-day appointments. You may also walk-in to any of our urgent care clinics, which have favorable hours to fit your busy schedule.  More than any other, the one infection everyone is worried about right now is COVID-19. If you think you may be experiencing symptoms the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has identified for the novel coronavirus, such as coughing, fever,  and shortness of breath, consider scheduling a test with TrustCare.

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