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How Can I Tell If My Infection Is Viral or Bacterial?

Posted on January 16, 2014 | Author and Reviewed by: Rose Ann C. Galera, RPh

Getting sick is not just simple as getting a cold or fever. It all starts with an infection somewhere in the body. Knowing what kind you have helps you get the best possible treatment to get better.

bacterial or viral infection

In the realm of sickness, there are two kinds of infections: viral and bacterial. This article will determine the difference between the two and empower you with the knowledge to deal with them if they happen to you.

Bacterial infections

Bacterial infections are caused by bacteria. These are single-celled organisms that multiply by simple division, according to a team of medical professionals from the University of Rochester’s medical center. Dr. Linda Petter, an Auburn Reporter columnist writes that a bacterial infection causes area-specific illnesses.

A number of respiratory infections such as:

• otitis media (ear)

• tonsillitis (tonsils)

• pneumonia (lungs)

• bronchitis (bronchial tubes)

• sinusitis (sinuses)

• pharyngitis (throat)

• and whooping cough (airways) are caused by an infestation of bacteria in only one area of the body.

Dr. James M. Steckelberg notes in a Mayo Clinic online article that certain varieties of bacteria thrive in cold environments, while others in hot. In the same publication, he notes that most bacteria are not harmful to humans. Another way to detect a bacterial infection is if the phlegm one coughs up is colored either green, yellow, bloody, or brown.

Detection of a bacterial infection

If you are hit by a fever followed by soreness or pain in a particular body part, you were hit by a bacterial infection. An example of a bacterial infection is UTI that comes with a high fever. Dr. Petter notes that the fever lasts for 10 days or more.

Treatment

Bacterial treatment is the easiest of the two. Once you feel unwell, a quick check-up from the doctor will determine what kind of antibiotic to take, as these meds are effective in counteracting the infection. But do not self-prescribe. If you take an incorrect brand of antibiotic, not only will the bacteria not be treated, but the infection will also develop a resistance towards medicine.

Viral infections

Viral infections, on the other hand, are caused by a virus. These are entities much smaller than bacteria. Instead of reproducing on its own, like its counterpart, they take over cells in the body. Once they’ve hijacked the cell, they rewrite its programming to reproduce the same virus, instead of the normal cell itself. The cell hi-jacking is necessary because viruses need a living organism to replicate. A sign of a viral infection is if the phlegm expelled from the body is either clear or cloudy. If the phlegm is colored – green, yellow, bloody or brown-tinged, the infection is most likely bacterial.

Viruses also cause a lot of respiratory infections as well. The same online article from the University of Rochester’s medical center lists:

  • common cold (rhinovirus)
  • the flu (influenza)
  • a portion of pneumonia cases
  • and bronchiolitis.

Detection of a viral infection

A common indication of a viral infection, on the other hand, is the start of cough and colds. That is why the common cold and flu are giveaways for a viral infection. The common denominator is the onset of the sniffles. Sicknesses caused by this kind of infection typically last for less than two weeks, according to Dr. Petter.

Treatment

Viruses are a bit more complicated. Since antibiotics don’t work on viruses, doctors will normally prescribe remedies that will reduce the symptoms, such as medicine for cough. Taking bed rest and drinking lots of fluids is also helpful for flushing out the virus from your system.