Bacterial vs. Viral Illness: Understanding the Difference

August 22, 2016
Bacterial vs. Viral Illness

Although viral and bacterial infections are alike in many ways, there are some key differences that make one more treatable than the other. Spread in similar ways, each type of microbe can cause sneezing, fever and all the other telltale signs of illness. On the other hand, their cellular compositions and reproductive designs make them far different from one another.
Bacterial Illness vs Viral Illness
Bacteria and viruses can spread in similar ways. Most are transmitted by coughing, sneezing, kissing, sex and contact with contaminated surfaces. Once a person contracts a virus or bacterium, the microbe begins reproducing, leading to an immune response that causes symptoms such as fever, runny nose, sore throat, coughing, chest congestion and muscle aches.
With that said, the similarities end there. While both microbes are too small to be seen with the naked eye, due to important structural differences, they are as different as mice and whales.
Noting the Differences
Complex, single-celled creatures, bacteria have a rigid wall and thin, rubbery membrane surrounding cellular fluid. This structural composition allows them to reproduce independently and to survive in extreme environments. At the same time, it also leaves them vulnerable to antibiotic medications that can cause bacterial cell walls to disintegrate.
One the other hand, viruses are much tinier than bacteria. They also have a more primitive structure consisting of a protein coat and a core of genetic material. Viruses are also unable to survive without a host and can only reproduce by attaching themselves to cells. Most often, the virus cells create new viruses by reprogramming the host cells until the die. In certain cases, viruses may also turn healthy cells into malignant or cancerous cells.
Treating Bacteria and Viruses
The discovery of antibiotic medications was a considerable breakthrough in human health. Sadly, because they are so adaptable, some bacteria are developing resistances to common antibiotics, resulting in so-called superbugs. Over-use of antibiotic medications is thought to be a contributor to this problem. Since antibiotic medications have no effect on viruses, leading health organizations now recommend against using these medications unless there is definitive evidence of a bacterial infection.
These days, more and more anti-viral medications are becoming available to treat influenza, herpes simplex virus and HIV/AIDS; however, none of these drugs have the ability to cure a viral infection outright. That said, immunization can prime the body's immune system to prevent certain viral infections, including polio, chickenpox and measles.
When to See a Doctor
You should visit your doctor any time you suspect that you have a viral of bacterial infection, with the exception of the common cold. Without antibiotic intervention, many bacterial infections can become quite serious. Likewise, although there is no simple cure for viral infections, treatment can drastically reduce the severity of symptoms.

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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