Blog Home
Image Description

Bacterial infection vs viral infection: What’s the difference?

Whether it’s a case of chickenpox or the common cold, we’ve all experienced a bacterial or viral infection. Despite their similarities, bacteria and viruses have major differences and therefore require different treatment.

Take a look at this handy guide to both bacterial and viral infections to help you understand the difference between them and how they should be treated.

What is a bacterial infection?

Most bacteria are harmless, providing essential nutrients, aiding digestion and destroying disease-causing microbes. Less than 1% of bacteria cause disease in people. Despite this, bacterial infections are common and spread by sneezing, not washing hands and contaminated items such as surfaces or hand towels.

What is a viral infection?

Most viruses cause disease and are specific about the cells they attack, for example the liver, respiratory system or blood stream. A virus spreads from person to person, multiplying when it enters the human body.

Viral diseases can lead to serious complications for those especially vulnerable to infection – for example, those who have a chronic disease, a compromised immune system, small babies and the elderly.

What should I do if I think I have a bacterial or viral infection?

Symptoms such as coughing, sneezing, fever, inflammation, vomiting, diarrhoea, fatigue and cramping are all signs of the immune system trying to rid the body of an infection.

If you experience these symptoms above you should consult your doctor. If required, your doctor can order a blood or urine test to help diagnosis.

When should I take antibiotics?

Antibiotics should be taken on your doctor’s recommendation to treat a bacterial infection. Over time however, the overuse of antibiotics can lead to bacteria building up a resistance to them.

The treatment of viral infections is more difficult. Viruses are relatively tiny and reproduce inside cells, so they can’t be treated with antibiotics. This includes the common cold, which is caused by a viral infection of the upper respiratory tract. Antibiotics are designed to treat bacterial infections, and because colds are viral, they will not help. Rest, keeping hydrated and treating the symptoms with over-the-counter medicine are the best course of action. 

Can I reduce my chances of getting a bacterial or viral infection?

Infections are caused when microbes spread from an infected individual to another person. Taking care to do the following things can help reduce your chances:

  • Wash your hands after being out and about or after being around someone sick
  • Avoid touching your face with unwashed hands
  • Cover your nose and mouth when coughing and sneezing to avoid spreading it yourself
  • Keep your immunity up by exercising, eating well and good rest

Vaccinations can also be taken as a preventative measure against certain diseases such as offered in the primary immunisation programmes in children, flu vaccinations and human pappiloma virus (HPV) in teenagers.

 Interested in reading more on family health? Click here for more articles from Vhi.