bacterial vs viral

You’ve got a sore throat, stuffy nose, cough, and maybe a fever… but what’s going to make it go away? It can be easy to think that a pack of antibiotics are going to do the trick in wiping out your symptoms, but that’s not a conclusion that you should jump to straight away. Your sickness could be viral or bacterial, and it’s important to get to the bottom of what’s causing your illnessso you and your doctor can best treat it.

Bacterial or viral… so what’s the difference?

Viruses, unlike bacteria, can not survive without a host. When viruses invade the body, they enter the cells, and essentially rework the coding of the cell so that the cell begins to reproduce the virus. The virus then goes on to invade cells and multiply throughout the body.

Common viral illnesses are the cold and the flu. In order to recover from these viruses, the body usually simply requires proper rest and fluids. Some viral infections however, such as HIV and herpes simplex virus, require anti-viral medication. These medicines do not kill the virus, but instead inhibit the development of the virus.

Many viral infections, such as polio and measles, can be prevented through vaccinations. However, antibiotics are completely useless against viral infections.


Bacterial infections, which are caused by the proliferation and spread of harmful bacteria throughout the body, can be treated by antibiotics. These antibiotics kill the harmful bacteria as they spread throughout the body, or inhibit their rate of growth.

However, many doctors are becoming more wary about the rate at which they prescribe antibiotics, due to the rise of antibiotic resistance. Antibiotic resistance occurs when bacteria change and adapt to be able to resist the effects of an antibiotic.

The truth about antibiotic resistance

According to the CDC, both overuse and misuse of antibiotics promote the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. When people take antibiotics, the sensitive bacteria are killed, but the resistant bacteria are left to spread throughout the body. These bacteria, which can become very dangerous, can then transmitted throughout the community. Since antibiotics are useless against viral infections, using antibiotics to treat these illnesses can help influence the increase of antibiotic resistance.

Sometimes, it can be hard to tell whether your illness is bacterial or viral. Some diseases can be caused both by viruses and by bacteria: such as pneumonia, bronchitis, ear infections, meningitis, and diarrhea.

Many bacterial and viral illnesses exhibit the same, or similar symptoms as each other. You should keep the following things in mind before you ask your doctor whether or not they believe your symptoms require antibiotics. Based on your past medical history, they will be able to recommend the proper treatment and diagnosis for you .

  • You have a bad sore throat. If your sore throat is showing signs of white spots, (little spots of pus) this could be a sign of a bacterial infection. Your doctor should culture a throat swab to determine the cause and whether or not the sore throat is strep throat, which usually requires antibiotic treatment.
  • Your symptoms are persisting for a long time. Often, viral illnesses are more short lived than bacterial infections. Many viral infections can develop into bacterial infections, as they weaken the immune system and leave the body susceptible to bacteria.
  • The color of your mucus isn’t clear. If your stuffy nose is resulting in clear or thin mucus, chances are it is the result of a virus. However, if the mucus is yellow or green, this could (though not definitively) indicate a bacterial infection. You should ask your doctor about all of the symptoms you are experiencing, so they can give you the proper diagnosis based on all your symptoms in conjunction with one another.

Experiencing symptoms today? You can consult with a doctor here if you want more information about whether your illness is bacterial or viral, and what the proper course of treatment should be for you.

Author: Maggie Harriman

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