Have you ever gone to the doctor thinking you’re going to get an antibiotic to treat your illness, only for them to say you have a viral infection—not a bacterial infection—and so an antibiotic won’t work? It’s easy to confuse bacterial and viral infections. Pink eye, after all, can be caused by either a viral or bacterial infection. And while viruses and bacteria are both infectious organisms, and they are sometimes transmitted in the same way, they are different and must be treated differently.
“One of the biggest differences between viruses and bacteria is that bacteria can thrive in a variety of environments—even on surfaces. They don’t need a human host to survive. Viruses, however, cannot live on their own. They need a human host to survive,” says Hina Syed, M.D., a family medicine physician at Henry Ford Health. “That’s why vaccines are so important to eradicate viruses. The more people who are vaccinated against COVID-19, for example, the less chance COVID-19 has to survive because the vaccines help us fight off COVID-19, making it difficult for the virus to use us as a host.”
Aside from COVID-19, a few examples of viruses include:
A few examples of bacterial infections include:
- Strep throat
- Ear infections and urinary tract infections
Generally speaking, our immune systems clear viral infections more easily than bacterial infections. Overall, viral infections can be a little less severe than bacterial infections, meaning your fever might be lower with a viral infection than a bacterial infection. But this doesn’t mean a viral infection can’t lead to severe disease—as we well know with COVID-19.
Treating Bacterial Infections
If you have a bacterial infection, it’s important to take an antibiotic. Antibiotics prevent bacteria from growing and becoming a life-threatening condition. If you have a viral infection, however, antibiotics will not treat your infection. In fact, if you do take an antibiotic every time you have a viral infection, it can get rid of beneficial gut bacteria (potentially leading to diarrhea and other digestive issues like colitis) and eventually antibiotic resistance.
Sometimes a viral infection can lead to a bacterial infection, if mucus buildup from a viral infection lingers for a prolonged period of time. (Young kids who get COVID-19, for example, may have a lot of mucus buildup, which can lead to an ear infection.) Once a viral infection has turned into a bacterial infection, you should take an antibiotic.
Treating Viral Infections
Viral infections have to run their course. “We can treat the symptoms of a viral infection with decongestants and over-the-counter pain relievers like ibuprofen, but they won’t actually treat the virus itself,” says Dr. Syed. “It’s important to rest and drink fluids so that your immune system can do its job to clear the virus.”
Antiviral medication can help treat certain viral infections (such as the antiviral pill for COVID-19 that was authorized by the FDA last year), but they are not widely available and the criteria to use them is very strict. “Also, antivirals don’t get rid of the infection, they just help to shorten the duration of the infection,” says Dr. Syed.
Instead, the main treatment method for viruses isn’t a treatment at all, but prevention. Getting vaccinated before you encounter a virus can train your immune system to fight it off, so that when you do encounter that virus, your body knows how to protect you from it. And if you do still contract the virus, it will be milder than if you hadn’t been vaccinated at all.
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Dr. Hina Syed practices family medicine at Henry Ford Medical Center – Canton, where she sees patients of all ages.