How Do I Know Whether I Have a Viral or Bacterial Infection?

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How Do I Know Whether I Have a Viral or Bacterial Infection?

A viral infection is caused by a virus, while a bacterial infection is caused by bacteria. That's the easy part. Differentiating between the two requires a medical diagnosis by a certified health professional. Although they both can cause a fever and irritability, the treatments between the two vary significantly.

What is a Virus?

According to the National Human Genome Research Institute, a virus is an infectious microbe consisting of a segment of nucleic acid (either DNA or RNA) surrounded by a protein coat.

Simply put, a viral infection is caused by the presence of a virus in the body. It can affect people of all ages and can infect almost all types of body tissue ranging from the brain to the skin.

Common viral infections can be detected by upper respiratory infections that include a runny nose, cough, low-grade fever, or soar throat. These infections can come from contact with infected people and can be transmitted through kissing and sex. They can also come from infected surfaces or creatures such as livestock and insects like fleas and ticks.

What is Bacteria?

Bacteria are small, single-celled organisms that are found almost everywhere in the world and are vital to the planet's ecosystem. The human body is full of bacteria and it is estimated that our bodies contain 10x more bacterial cells than human cells. Unlike viruses, bacteria can survive on its own whether it's inside or outside of the body.

Not all bacteria is bad. For example, the digestive system contains bacteria that aides in helping our bodies function in a normal way. They can help in the process of digestion, destroys some disease-causing organisms, and provides nutrients.

Pathogenic bacteria however, is very harmful. If you come into contact with harmful bacteria it can damage your body's tissue and cause you to feel ill. The most serious concerns are bacterial illnesses like sepsis & bacterial meningitis. It is very important to seek medical attention as soon as possible so the infection doesn't spread.

Bacterial infections can be transmitted through the environment or eating/drinking contaminated food and water.

How to Know the Difference Between the Two

Both infections come with different symptoms. Although some are shared, there are a few distinct ways that these two are differentiated. For bacterial infections, symptoms tend to last longer than the 10-14 a virus tends to last. When you have a bacterial infection, it usually comes along with a fever that is higher than a viral infection and usually gets worse a few days into the illness rather than improving.

Whether it is a viral or bacterial infection, things you should watch out for are: dehydration, increased work of breathing, and no improvement over a 3- to 5- day period according to DukeHealth.

Examples of viral infections include: COVID-10, herpes, HPV and HIV.

Examples of bacterial infections include: whooping cough, strep throat, ear infections, and UTI's.

How to Treat Infection

If you believe you may have a viral or bacterial infection, you should consult with your doctor. It can be difficult to determine which illness it might be which leads to different tests your doctor can run.

Sometimes they are able to determine the cause based on your medical history and completing a physical exam. Other times, a blood or urine test is the best way to get results so you can receive the correct treatment. Since the treatments for each vary significantly, it is important to get the correct diagnosis.

Viral infections are difficult to treat. They are not affected by antibiotics because they attach themselves to healthy cells and reprogram those cells to make new viruses which results in antibiotics unable to work correctly according to Queensland Health. Antiviral medications block some, but not all, viruses from entering the body or stop them from reproducing.

However, bacterial infections can be treated with different antibiotics based on the symptoms and diagnosis your doctor provides. These antibiotics are able to kill or stop the bacteria from multiplying.