Bacterial Infections vs. Viral: When Should I Use Antibiotics?

March 8, 2017
Bacterial Infections vs. Viral

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one-third to one-half of antibiotic use in humans is either inappropriate or unnecessary. Before you ask your doctor to prescribe antibiotic medications for your illness, learn the effects and limitations of these drugs.

Antibiotic Resistance

Since their discovery nearly one hundred years ago, antibiotics have saved countless lives. Unfortunately, overuse has led to emerging antibiotic resistance that could render these drugs ineffective. When taken inappropriately or unnecessarily prescribed, antibiotics catalyze changes in bacteria, allowing the organisms to develop defense mechanisms against medications. This has resulted in new "super bugs" that can survive common antibiotic treatments. To help stem this rising tide, it's important to understand why antibiotics are inappropriate for treating viral infections.

Bacteria vs Viruses

While both are too tiny to be seen by the naked eye, bacteria and viruses are not very similar. A single bacterium is a complex cell, while a single virus particle isn't a cell at all. While bacteria are able to live outside the body, viruses require hosts to live and multiply. While some bacteria do cause illness, the vast majority are either benign or helpful. On the other hand, viruses propagate by causing damage to a host, usually by entering and multiplying inside healthy cells.

Infectious Characteristics

As their names suggest, viruses cause viral infections and bacteria cause bacterial infections. The former include things such as influenza, the common cold, chickenpox, bronchitis and HIV/AIDS. The latter include strep throat, urinary tract infections and whooping cough. Since they both cause similar symptoms, viral and bacterial infections aren't always easy to diagnose. Doctors may use stool, urine or blood samples to create culture tests that allow them to identify the bugs under a microscope.

Treating an Infection

Doctors typically treat bacterial infections by prescribing antibiotic medications that either kill the organisms or prevent them from multiplying. Unfortunately, antibiotics have no effect on viruses. There are some medications that can lessen the impact of very specific types of viral infections. That said, the vast majority of the time, patients have no other choice but to treat symptoms while they wait for their bodies to create antibodies that eradicate or suppress the virus. There are also preventative vaccines available for common viral infections such as flu and hepatitis.
In most cases, however, if you are sick with the flu or common cold, the best medicines are fluids, rest and maybe some chicken soup.

Son kissing mother
I wanted to take a moment to thank you for the attention you gave me last week. My son was started on antibiotics and ear drops. Within 24 hours he began to feel better. The poor kid had been going to school in tears because he was afraid of missing any more days, but feeling (and looking) just awful! He's not been able to even think about lacrosse practice, but thanks to starting him on antibiotics, he was thrilled to return to practice today.
Somers, NY
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