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Bacterial vs. Viral Infections

Bacterial vs. Viral Infections: What's the Difference?

An infection is something that can always be treated with an antibiotic, right? Wrong! Bacterial infections and viral infections are very different, and it's important to understand the differences and how they affect your health.

If the past few years of the pandemic taught us anything, it's that viruses – and viral infections – can be serious health issues. Bacterial infections can also be cause for concern, even though they are treated very differently. Knowing the difference between the two, and what you should do to protect your health, is more important than ever.

It's a common practice for most of us to go to the doctor when an infection has us laid low. We go in thinking that the doctor will prescribe an antibiotic, and within a few days we'll be good as new. But, how often has the doctor told you that what you really have a viral infection – and that an antibiotic simply won't work? If you're confused, you aren’t alone. And adding to the confusion is that many infections, such as pink eye, and pneumonia, can be either viral or bacterial.

In general bacteria can thrive in lots of different environments and don't need a human host to survive. These single-celled organisms reproduce outside of the cells, and release toxins into your body, so it’s easier for medicine to target and eradicate them. Examples of bacterial infections include ear infections, food poisoning, sinus infections, urinary tract infections, and strep throat – all of which can generally be treated with a course of antibiotics.

Viruses, on the other hand, are tiny infectious agents that grow and multiple only inside living hosts – or the living cells of an organism. They have receptors that allow them to attach to the host cells in your body, where they can then replicate easily and infect other healthy cells. Viral infections such as a cold, the flu, chickenpox and COVID-19 are causes by viruses, and antibiotics are ineffective in treating them.

Viral infections often have to run their course. There are a variety of treatments available to treat systems and make you more comfortable, but they won't actually kill the virus. Decongestants and pain relievers such as ibuprofen can help reduce the severity of the symptoms while a virus such as the common cold works its way through your system, but it’s also important to rest and drink plenty of fluids to help your immune system do its job. Antiviral medications are also used to treat some viral infections, such as Paxlovid for COVID-19 and Tamiflu for seasonal flu. These antiviral drugs help keep the virus from multiplying in your body and can help your body fight off the virus – often shortening the length or severity of a viral infection. They can also help protect you from getting a viral infection or spreading the virus to others. They do this in a variety of ways, depending on the drug:

  • Block the receptors so viruses can enter healthy cells
  • Help boost the immune system so it can fight off the viral infection
  • Lower the amount of active virus (known as the viral load) in the body

If you aren't sure what type of infection you have, it’s important to see your doctor. NEVER take antibiotics for an unknown infection, as that could worsen the problem and create antibiotic resistance. By the same token, don’t take an antiviral (such as Paxlovid) if you aren’t certain that you are dealing with COVID-19. Bottom line is that antivirals and antibiotics can only be administered by your healthcare professional. And it’s vitally important to take them exactly as directed. Never share medications, and never stop taking them just because you feel better. You need to take the entire course as prescribed – each and every time.


This article appeared in the February 2024 edition of the HealthPerks newsletter.

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