Bacteria? Virus? Infection? What’s the difference?

It’s that time of the year where everyone is sick. You hear phrases like “it’s going around“, but what is it? Bacterial and viral infections often start with the similar symptoms, so if you’re not a medical professional it can be confusing trying to differentiate symptoms to decide whether an over-the-counter medicine can treat symptoms, or if further medical attention is required. 


Infections, both viral and bacterial, spread from one infected individual to another through direct contact, coughing, sneezing, unwashed hands, etc. They also tend to start with symptoms such as runny nose, cough, fever, and sore throat. Viral infections include diagnoses like common cold, flu, bronchitis, and chicken pox; and bacterial infections include diagnosis such as strep throat, ear infection, UTI, and whooping cough. 


Unfortunately, bacteria and viruses are too microscopic to differentiate solely from symptoms. A virus needs a host to survive. Because it cannot live on its own, it attaches itself to healthy cells and multiplies, causing illness. Bacteria, on the other hand, can survive on its own, and is capable of living inside and outside the body. 


Fun Fact: the vaccines that children receive in their early years are intended to prevent serious complications from bacterial infections. 


The biggest difference in a bacterial and viral infection is that a viral infection cannot be treated by prescription antibiotics. Since the two are not distinguishable by the naked eye, the only way to determine whether your symptoms are bacterial or viral is through lab testing (this is where we come in!). Using various tests allows for medical professionals to diagnose whether the illness stems from a virus or bacteria. 


Regardless of whether an infection is viral or bacterial, it is crucial to monitor your child’s symptoms to protect against complications. Make sure they stay hydrated. When the body is fighting off an infection it is especially important that fluid intake does not decrease. You can monitor hydration by seeing how many times your child urinates in a 24 hour time span. If it is less than three times in one day, seek medical attention immediately. 
Always be sure to instill healthy habits as a preventative way to protect against pesky germs:

• Wash your hands after being in public places or being around someone sick. 

• Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands. 

• Cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze to prevent the spread of germs.

• Finally, exercise regularly, maintain a healthy diet, and get enough rest to keep your immune system strong. 


Sometimes with a little R&R, the body will fight off infection on its own. If symptoms last longer than 3-5 days seek medical treatment. And remember, our offices are conveniently open until 11 p.m. every day to help you solve the bacteria/virus mystery. For more information, or if you have questions regarding symptoms, call or visit the Your Kid’s Urgent Care location nearest to you.