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Diseases and conditions

Viral or bacterial infection – what are the differences between viruses and bacteria?

Unseen to a naked eye, pathogenic microorganisms can take you down within a few hours and get you stuck in bed for a few days. We should realize that infections caused by Bacteria and viruses differ from each other significantly. Why is it so important to tell the difference between a viral and a bacterial infection?

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The differences between a bacterium and a virus

When thinking about Bacteria and viruses, we usually picture two microorganisms. However, whereas a bacterium most certainly is a microorganism and it’s definitely alive, the things aren’t that clear when it comes to viruses. That’s because if we look into the definitions, viruses are actually (simply put) an advanced particle made of proteins and nucleic acid.

Viruses don’t have metabolism, which is one of the criteria for recognizing an organism as alive. They can’t reproduce on their own, either – they need a host for that, which are the cells of a body they attack. And here comes the answer to the question of why we have a limited number of medicines against viruses. What are the differences between viral or bacterial infection?

Does the presence of viruses or bacteria in the body always indicate an illness?

The fact that each of us carries a large number of bacteria in their body is known to everyone. It might feel strange, though, that most of us are also hosts to potentially Pathogenic viruses. In a vast majority of cases, our body is great at handling them and “keeping them in line”. They might be dangerous, however, to people with immunity disorders, for example.

Scientists at the University of Washington took samples from 102 people aged 18 to 40. All those people were healthy, but the smears from their noses, skin, mouths, vaginas and stools turned out to be full of viruses. Those were mostly the strains responsible for flu, vaginitis and herpes. So why, despite being at constant risk of contact with viruses, we aren’t always sick?

viral or bacterial infection

Strong immune system

Every infection, be it viral or bacterial, causes the immune system to activate. Well trained immune system cells are great at recognizing whether a bacterium is potentially pathogenic. They can also recognize viruses. The truth is, our body is a never ending battlefield where the forces of our immune system are involved. Falling ill is something that usually occurs when it’s weakened.

When it comes to bacterial infections, we can take an antibiotic in such case – when a doctor determines that the body won’t handle it on its own, like in case of angina. For Viral infections – well, we just have to stay home and try to support our immunity the best we can. On top of that, it’s also a good idea to especially take good care of our microflora while infected. Our good gut bacteria can not only support the body in battling pathogens, but some of them secret special protein substances called bacteriocins. These are strong toxic substances the functioning of which is similar to that of antibiotics.

Viral or bacterial infection – how to tell them apart?

In a layman’s eyes, a viral and bacterial infection can have a similar course. In most cases, a viral infection develops less rapidly than a bacterial one (but it’s not always the case). It starts with a headache, sore muscles and is soon followed by other symptoms such as: sore throat, dry cough. Usually it’s not accompanied by a high temperature. The rule of thumb is that for a viral throat infection, if there is no improvement after 3 days and the symptoms actually get worse, there is quite a chance that the infection will morph into a bacterial one.

A bacterial infection (usually caused by streptococci, but it may also be a staph for example) usually starts rapidly, is accompanied by a high temperature, enlarged lymph nodes. We should remember, though, that it’s not a rule. Sometimes bacterial pneumonia seems very innocent. That’s why, whenever the symptoms are rapid or won’t go away in a few days, it is necessary to Consult a doctor.