Bacterial vs Viral Infections: The Differences Explained

Category: Healthy Living


Posted on January 17, 2021

Vanessa is a health writer and blogging expert. Her specialities are medicine, health and wellness. She is proud to call Vancouver, BC her home where she enjoys the ocean and mountains with her dog Mr. ChowChow.

bacterial vs viral infections

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, it seemed like there was an answer for everything in the medical industry. 

Of course, there were still medical marvels that stumped doctors occasionally. But generally speaking, most people would not have predicted a widespread, highly-contagious virus taking over the world.

But alas, here we are in the midst of a global pandemic. Suddenly, the differences between bacterial vs viral infections are important to the everyday person.

This experience has shed light on the inner workings of the virus and the process in which scientists learn more about unknown diseases. The world has watched with bated breath while pharmaceutical companies have continued working on a vaccine.

Along the way, everyday Americans have learned more about how the novel Coronavirus spreads and the differences between bacterial vs viral infections.

Bacteria and viruses are known to be the cause of many common infections in the human body. Most people experience sickness from both bacterial and viral infections in their lifetimes.

Yet, for non-medical professionals, the exact differences between bacterial vs viral infections are not always clear.

To better understand the differences between bacterial vs viral infections, keep reading.

What Is Bacteria?

Bacteria are single-cell microorganisms that vary greatly in their structure.

There are many different types of bacteria that can survive in almost any environment. This includes the human body.

This also includes drastic conditions—like extreme heat/cold or radioactive waste. Some types of bacteria have even been around for as long as 3.5 billion years.

But, not all bacteria are bad. Much of the bacteria in the human body perform important functions. These bacteria help digest food, provide vitamins, and remove disease-causing cells.

Bacteria carry important duties in nearly all life forms on earth. It's when "bad" bacteria comes into play where people and other animals can get sick.

What Is a Bacterial Infection?

It's true that the term "bacteria" can carry a negative connotation in everyday speech. We hear the benefits of antibacterial soap in advertisements. We get warned from a young age to be diligent in hygiene practices to avoid these harmful microorganisms.

But this is not always true. Only a small percentage of bacteria—less than one percent—lead to infections in the human body. These are also known as pathogenic bacteria.

Bacterial infection occurs when these harmful pathogens invade the body and hijack the immune system. They quickly multiply and begin damaging healthy cells.

The actual results of the infection can vary by type of bacteria and the human body in which it enters.

How Do Bacterial Infections Spread?

Not all bacteria are the same. As such, bacterial infections do not always spread in the same way, either.

Though not all bacterial infections are contagious, many are. This means they can spread through close contact with infected food/water, surfaces, or people (or their bodily fluids).

This can also include some oft-overlooked methods of transmission. This could be passing from mother to child during birth or through the bite of an insect infected with the bacteria.

There are many common bacterial infections that a majority of Americans will experience at some point in their lifetime. These may include:

  • Strep throat
  • Salmonella
  • Urinary tract infection
  • Food poisoning (bacterial)
  • Gonorrhea
  • Tuberculosis
  • Ear infection
  • Meningitis (bacterial)
  • Cellulitis
  • Lyme disease
  • Tetanus

But, there is also a multitude of situations in which humans come into contact with bacteria and do not develop any infection or disease. This puts the rate of occurrence of pathogenic bacteria into a better perspective.

How Can Bacterial Infections Be Prevented?

One of the most effective ways of preventing both bacterial and viral infections is to maintain good personal hygiene.

This includes frequent hand-washing—as made abundantly clear in 2020. It also includes trying to avoid sharing personal items like utensils or drinking glasses.

Vaccines have been a major topic of discussion more recently in the context of combatting viruses. Though, they are also particularly effective in building up resistance inside the body against pathogenic bacteria.

Bacterial vaccines use dead or weakened bacteria to set the immune system into action. Examples of vaccines used to treat bacterial infections are the tuberculosis vaccine and the typhoid vaccine. 

How Are Bacterial Infections Treated?

Doctors treat bacterial infections with various types of antibiotics. These are drugs that prevent bacteria from further growing. 

One of the most commonly-prescribed antibiotics is amoxicillin. This is a penicillin antibiotic used to combat bacterial infections like tonsilitis, bronchitis, and pneumonia.

It’s important for patients to always complete their antibiotic prescriptions when treating bacterial infections. Doctors carefully write prescriptions to match the circumstances of your case.

They set the dosage, frequency, and length of the course to best treat your bacterial infection. Without following the entire prescribed course, it’s possible that some of the pathogenic bacteria can get left behind.

What Is a Virus?

Like bacteria, viruses are also microorganisms with varying shapes and features. Viruses are smaller in size than bacteria and contain genetic material, though. This is not the case for bacteria.

Viruses survive on parasitic relationships—they cannot survive without a host. This means they thrive by taking advantage of living cells or tissue.

To divide and thus reproduce, viruses rely on the machinery of living cells in other organisms. In the human body, viruses can wreak havoc.

They invade cells, using the resources inside of the existing cells to multiply the virus. Sometimes, this even results in killing host cells. Other times, viruses turn the normal cells into cancerous cells.

Although not all viruses are bad, scientists have been able to put some viruses into the body intentionally to achieve a variety of benefits.

Viruses differ from bacteria in that they contain genetic material. By manipulating this, scientists have been able to inject specific genes into cells to target (and ultimately reverse) some genetic diseases. 

This treatment has been successfully proven in curing hemophilia. This is a genetic disorder that prevents blood from clotting.

Furthermore, phage therapy has been successful in some cases where bacteria are highly resistant to traditional treatments. It involves using viruses to re-structure bacterially-infected cells to make them more susceptible to antibiotics.

From there, they can be more successfully targeted and removed.

What Is a Viral Infection?

A viral infection occurs when a virus invades the body and takes over healthy cells. From there, the virus takes components of these cells to replicate itself. The originally healthy cells die or become damaged in the process.

One of the most common distinctions between bacterial vs viral infections is the effect on the body. As viruses cannot be cured, they remain in the body for life. Symptoms may not always be present, though.

Viruses have received more attention over the past year, particularly in relation to the pandemic that has swept the globe. COVID-19 is a particularly contagious virus that presents with symptoms like that of influenza.

At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a bit of confusion. Though this disease is colloquially referred to as “Coronavirus,” this term has been traditionally used by scientists and medical professionals in a different way. Coronaviruses are a classification of viruses that typically cause upper-respiratory tract illnesses.

The SARS pandemic of 2003 was another example of a highly-contagious disease resulting from a coronavirus.

How Do Viral Infections Spread?

Many viral infections are contagious. They spread through similar transmission methods as bacterial infections.

Most often, this comes in the form of close contact with an infected person. This may be person-to-person contact. It could also be from contact with surfaces that have become contaminated with the virus.

Like with bacterial infections, most adults will experience a viral infection at some point in their lives. More common examples include:

  • Influenza
  • Common cold
  • Chickenpox
  • AIDS
  • Measles
  • Meningitis (viral)
  • Warts

Viral infections can be more dangerous than bacterial infections as they are more difficult to treat. This makes prevention all the more important.

How Can Viral Infections Be Prevented?

Like bacterial infections, maintaining good personal hygiene (like frequent hand-washing) is one of the easiest yet most effective ways to prevent viral infections.

Additionally, many viral infections can be prevented by getting immunized. Like bacterial infections, these shots take an attenuated form of the virus to “teach” the immune system how to fight these invaders.

Some examples of viral infections often targeted for prevention by vaccines include measles, mumps, and chickenpox.

COVID-19 Vaccine

Vaccines for viral infections have received extra attention as of late. The world anxiously awaits the development and distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine.

By the end of the year 2020, several pharmaceutical companies had developed, tested, and approved vaccines to treat COVID-19. There are actually several different variations of the vaccine that are in the process of being made available to the public.

The COVID-19 vaccine was produced in record time—developed from start to finish in what will be just shy of one year. In contrast, the mumps vaccine of the 1960s took four years from the research phase to approval.

Moving into the new year, all eyes are on these companies to see when quarantine restrictions and mask mandates will be lifted.

However, the logistical process of producing and disseminating this vaccine is much more complicated. It will likely take well into the spring for most Americans to gain access to the shots. 

From there, it will take even more time to build up herd immunity. Dr. Anthony Fauci—who has been widely considered the go-to expert on COVID-19—estimates "some degree of normalcy" reached by the end of 2021.

How Are Viral Infections Treated?

Vaccines and other prevention methods are especially important for viral infections. This has become especially evident with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic but remains an important lesson for the public.

Prevention is especially key for viral vs bacterial infections due to the nature of viral diseases. 

Viral infections are much harder to treat than their bacterial counterparts. This is because the viruses live within the once-healthy cells of the human body. As they protect themselves well from medication, they are not easy to treat.

Unfortunately, most common viral infections do not have a cure. Unlike bacterial infections, antibiotics are not effective in treating viral infections.

It’s important for medical professionals to understand this distinction and avoid over-prescribing antibiotics. When antibiotics are overused, it can lead to antibiotic resistance developing in the body.

This makes it harder to treat bacterial infections down the line. While there is a greater abundance of prescription medication to treat bacterial infections, there are still a handful of options for fighting viruses.

There are a limited amount of antiviral medications available for treatment. However, they do not cure the virus altogether. These medications are more effective in inhibiting the life cycle of the virus than removing it from the body, per se. 

Some examples of the use of antiviral medications include:

  • Tamiflu (generic name: oseltamivir) for influenza
  • Valtrex (generic name: valacyclovir) for some viral herpes infections

Some symptoms resulting from the virus can be treated with over-the-counter (OTC) medications. For example, fevers and aches and pains that are common with the flu can be treated with OTC painkillers.

Obtaining Medication for Bacterial vs Viral Infections

There are many differences in comparing bacterial vs viral infections. While they sometimes produce similar symptoms, the two types of infection actually differ greatly.

Bacterial infections are often treated with antibiotics. While there are a handful of antiviral medications out there, they are much less widely available.

For both types of infection, over the counter medications are often used to treat the symptoms that accompany the infection.

For all medication needs—whether it be prescription or over the counter—there are various benefits to using a Canadian pharmaceutical source. Contact a trusted Canadian pharmacy for more information on these benefits.

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