What You Need to Know About Bacteria And Viral Infections

When we’re feeling sick, we often find ourselves desperately looking for a “magic pill” to get us back to normal but unfortunately that’s not always the case. With viral and bacterial infections so closely related, how can we tell when we have either one? What treatments are available? What can we do to prevent them? Today, modern medicine has a solution for almost every problem but sometimes the only treatment is the tried-and-true method of letting it run its course, especially when it’s viral.  

Symptoms of both bacterial and viral infections are incredibly closely related. Consider an upper respiratory infection, both viral and bacterial infections have symptoms of a cough, congestion, headache, and sometimes shortness of breath. In recent years, we’ve learned first-hand how easily pneumonia initially caused by a virus will worsen when a secondary bacteria infects patients. This was particularly true with COVID-19; despite being caused by a virus, antibiotics were vital in treating the associated bacterial infections. 

Bacteria can live in almost every conceivable environment, including in or on the human body while viruses are parasitic and require living cells or tissue to grow. Our bodies have naturally beneficial bacteria that provide us with beneficial advantages to our overall health. In fact, without our gut bacteria, we wouldn’t be able to break down food appropriately. Similarly, when bacteria from our gut is introduced to our bladder, we find ourselves suffering from a urinary tract infection. We can encounter bacteria from other people, food, or the environment whereas viruses are most often spread from person-to-person. While only a handful of bacteria cause infections in humans, nearly all viruses cause some degree of an immune response from the infected individual. When our immune system is weakened by a virus, bacteria will take advantage of the situation and infect our bodies, making us feel even worse.  

Fortunately, there are several resources available for providers to diagnose whether you have a viral or bacterial infection causing you to feel the way you do. Examples include strep tests (bacterial infection), flu and COVID tests (viral infections) and the new tests like the Spot Fire that can test you for 22 different viral and bacterial agents. With the availability to be able to test and diagnose accurately, treatment has become less of a guessing game.  

Antibiotics are the drug of choice for treating bacterial infections such as strep throat, urinary tract infections, and cellulitis. Regrettably, viral infections are trickier as there aren’t as many anti-viral medications available for treatment and best “treated” with prevention. Infections such as influenza and chicken pox/shingles have medications made specifically to treat these infections. Treatment for most viral infections are directed to help relieve the symptoms such as fever, cough, congestion, nausea, vomiting, etc.  

Prevention is the greatest treatment for all types of infections. Methods of prevention include washing your hands with soap and water, staying away from people who are sick and avoiding others if you are sick. Covering your cough and sneezes, as well as disinfecting frequently touched surfaces are also superb ways to keep ourselves healthy. A wholesome diet with regular exercise and daily multivitamins are excellent approaches to ensure your body’s natural defenses are excellent and ready to fight off any potential threat of infection. 

Bacteria and viruses are the cause of a variety of common infections and can be transmitted by similar means. Sometimes tests are available for accurate diagnosing while other times your doctor will diagnose your condition by using their best judgement during a simple physical examination. Antibiotics are used to treat bacterial infections while most viral infection treatment focuses on treating symptoms while letting the virus runs its course. Overall, the best medicine is prevention.  

Article Written By Andrianna Kovatch RN