Learn how bacterial infections differ from viral ones - to help prevent sickness.
Personal Health

Bacterial Infections and Their Viral Counterparts: What You Should Know

We all get infections from time to time, whether they're bacterial or viral. The germs that cause infections are all around us, leading to various illnesses. But what exactly is the difference between a viral and bacterial infection? Here's what you should know.

Bacterial Infections

Bacteria are living microscopic organisms that are all around us, even on us. Most bacteria are harmless or even helpful. Some bacteria live in your gut to help you digest food, for example. But when some bacteria get into parts of your body where they're not meant to be, they can make you ill, causing a bacterial infection.

Bacteria can enter your body through your mouth, your respiratory tract, or even cuts or openings in your skin, like tattoos, piercings, or surgical incisions. Depending on the part of the body that is infected, symptoms can include:

  • Redness and swelling at the infection site
  • Fever
  • Pus or foul-smelling discharge
  • Pain
  • Sweating

Once unfriendly bacteria enter your body, your body's immune system tries to fight them off. But oftentimes, your body can't fight the infection naturally, and you need to take antibiotics — medication that kills the bacteria. Antibiotics come in many forms, including pills, injections, creams, drops, and intravenously. Not all antibiotics can kill all bacteria, so your doctor or nurse practitioner need to know what type of infection you have in order to prescribe the correct medication.

Some infections are common and recognizable, but your health care provider may take a culture of the infected area. This could be a blood sample, a swab of the infected area, or some sputum. The sample is sent to a laboratory for testing. It's not unusual, however, if you're given a broad-spectrum antibiotic while you wait. These antibiotics treat a large field of infections and if the sample shows you should have a more specific antibiotic, your prescription can be changed.

Viral Infections

When an infection is caused by a virus — tiny agents that live inside living cells — it's called a viral infection. Like bacteria, viruses are everywhere, and some are more serious than others. Common viral infections are the cold, influenza, and chicken pox, but serious ones include Ebola and HIV.

Viruses enter your body mainly through your mouth or respiratory tract, although they can also enter through blood-to-blood contact, and through openings in your skin, such as herpes. Many viruses, like chicken pox and colds, are self-limiting: they last a while and then go away as your body fights them. However, viruses such as hepatitis C and HIV live in your body for years. And as long as you have them, you can transmit them to someone else.

There is no cure for most viruses. Antibiotics are not effective treatment for viruses, but there are some antiviral medications that can help your body fight off infections like shingles or influenza more quickly. Treatment for viruses often focuses on your symptoms to help you feel a bit better until the virus is gone.

Preventing Viral and Bacterial Infections

The same general rule of thumb helps prevent the spread of both bacterial infections and viral infections: Practice good hygiene, such as washing your hands thoroughly whenever needed and not sharing personal items like razors. Also, make sure to keep all open wounds clean (and covered, depending on the wound).

If you're given an antibiotic for a bacterial infection, it's essential that you take it exactly as prescribed and for the full length of time, regardless of how much better you may be feeling. If you stop too soon, the infection may regain its foothold and even get worse. Vaccinations are also an option. There are vaccinations that can help reduce the risk of catching some viral infections, such as influenza, mumps, and chicken pox, and a few for preventing bacterial infections like tuberculosis.

It's vital that infections are treated quickly and effectively. Untreated infections, even common ones like urinary tract infections, can spread, causing a serious illness called sepsis. Sepsis is the body's overreaction to infection, and it can result in organ damage, amputations, or even death.

By taking care of yourself and seeking medical help for any infections, you can prevent them from causing complications.

Posted in Personal Health

Marijke Vroomen Durning, RN is a Montreal-based writer. She is a registered nurse with many years of experience working with patients and their families, literally from birth to death. Her first job in nursing was in postpartum and her last in hospice. She has written for outlets like Costco Connection, Forbes.com, and Oncology Live, to name a few, and is author of the book, Just the Right Dose: Your Smart Guide to Prescription Medications & How to Take Them Safely.

*This information is for educational purposes only and does not constitute health care advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor or physician before making health care decisions.