Getting sick is a part of life. Determining whether an illness is caused by bacteria or a virus can help you get on a faster path to recovery. The tricky part is knowing the difference between viral and bacterial infection symptoms.

We all wish there was a magic pill to take when we get sick. The truth is, treatment depends heavily on what is causing the sickness in the first place. Treatment for symptoms of a bacterial infection is vastly different than how you would help someone recover from a viral infection.

To begin to understand what may be ailing you, it is important to start with the basics.

Virus vs Bacteria

Virus: What is a Viral Infection?

The Mayo Clinic explains that viruses are very small. They are “smaller than bacteria and require living hosts– such as people, plants, or animals– to multiply.” Viruses cannot live on their own and when they enter the body, they multiply and take over living cells.

As MedlinePlus puts it, “viruses are like hijackers. They invade living, normal cells and use those cells to multiply and produce other viruses like themselves.”

Viral infections are often identifiable by their symptoms. Duke Health mentions that these symptoms may include:

  • Runny nose
  • Congestion
  • Cough
  • Slight fever
  • Sore throat

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) points out that symptoms like these are typical of an upper respiratory infection. Upper respiratory Infections include COVID-19, the flu, and the common cold. Although, there are a variety of viruses that cause other issues such as HIV/AIDS.

Bacteria: What is a Bacterial Infection?

According to Verywell Health, bacteria can be described as “small organisms that can invade the body and cause infections.” Foreign bacteria causes your body to have an immune response.

The body’s reaction to these intruders result in symptoms such as:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Fatigue
  • Swelling
  • Redness
  • Pain
  • Organ dysfunction
  • Skin infections

Not all bacteria are created equal. While some bacteria may be harmful, our bodies have an abundance of good bacteria that help us with daily bodily functions. Good bacteria help with things like digestion and keeping your body balanced.

Unfamiliar bacteria, on the other hand, can affect anyone. Those with weak immune systems can have more severe infections. Symptom severity also depends highly on the type of bacteria causing the issue.

Illnesses such as strep throat, ear infections, salmonella, bacterial vaginosis, sexually transmitted infections, and urinary tract infections are all examples of bacterial illnesses.

Viral Infection Treatment

The CDC assures its readers that most viral infections tend to be mild and resolve on their own. In the event that symptoms persist or worsen, antiviral drugs may be recommended by a healthcare professional.

Antiviral medications are not antibiotics. For those who may have compromised immune systems, antiviral drugs help lessen the severity of symptoms and shorten the duration of the illness.

These medications are not over the counter and must be prescribed. Those who are in a “higher risk group,” or become severely ill, are applicable for this treatment. Otherwise, most people just have to wait out their sickness while treating their individual symptoms.

Ideally these antiviral medications need to be taken early on when symptoms first appear. The CDC stresses that “antiviral drugs work best for treatments when they are started within 2 days of getting sick.”

Bacterial Infection Treatment

Like viruses, many bacterial infections clear up on their own without medication. However, if bacterial infections are left too long the severity of the infection may drastically increase and require treatment. Some infections left too long may even lead to life-threatening outcomes.

Verywell Health mentions that antibiotics may be prescribed by your doctor if your bacterial infection does not go away on its own. Antibiotic treatments kill bacteria or, in some cases, make it hard for the bacteria to multiply. A visit with your healthcare provider will determine which bacteria may be the cause of your symptoms, so the appropriate antibiotic is prescribed.

Can Viruses be Treated with Antibiotics?

Unfortunately, viruses cannot be treated with antibiotics. Why can’t viruses be treated with antibiotics, you may ask? To put it simply, viruses cannot be treated with antibiotics because they are caused by a virus not a bacteria. Although, some viral infections may progress into something bacterial if symptoms persist.

The CDC states that some infections can be caused by a virus or bacteria. These illnesses include, but are not limited to:

It is important in these instances that you see your doctor to determine whether a virus or bacteria is to blame.

What Happens if You Take an Antibiotic and Don’t Need Them?

While antibiotics seem like the magic pill for all illnesses, they have limitations and risks. It is important to follow the guidelines presented by your healthcare provider when taking this medication.

The CDC warns against taking unnecessary antibiotics. They also recommend being evaluated by a healthcare professional. Often, people take antibiotics when they do not need them and this can eventually lead to what is called “antibiotic resistance.”

Antibiotic resistance occurs when “germs like bacteria and fungi develop the ability to defeat the drugs designed to kill them. That means the germs are not killed and continue to grow.” The CDC continues to mention that in 2019 alone, 35,000 people died as a result of antibiotic resistance in the U.S.

If more people become resistant to antibiotics, it will become very difficult to control these illnesses in our communities.

We Have You Covered

Whether you may be suffering with a viral or bacterial infection, Advanced Urgent Care & Occupational Medicine has you covered. We have clinics across Colorado’s Denver metro area.

Schedule a visit online or walk-in 7 days a week. Click here to view all of our locations and to schedule.