Bacteria vs Viruses

Bacteria vs viruses

You’ve caught a cold but how do you know if it’s bacterial or viral?

Do you know when an infection is bacterial or viral? This may not sound very important but it is. Infamous bacterial and viral infections include the bubonic plague (also known as Black Death) which was caused by Yersinia pestis bacteria and smallpox, which was caused by the variola virus. Closer to the present, there’s the HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) epidemic that has caused 1.5 million deaths worldwide in 2013.

Tiny but mighty

Aside from the fact that both bacteria and viruses are too small to be seen without a microscope, other similarities between the two microbes include symptoms such as coughing and sneezing, inflammation, vomiting, fever and diarrhoea, which are ways for the body to get rid of these microbes. Due to the differences between how bacteria and viruses are structured and also how they respond to medication, the similarities end there.

Bacteria are mostly ‘friendly’ with only less than one percent of known bacteria causing diseases in people. Bacterial infections can range from mild to fairly serious such as strep throat, tuberculosis and urinary tract infections.

Viruses, on the other hand, are smaller than bacteria and contain core of genetic material (either RNA or DNA). They are only able to reproduce when attached to a healthy host cell which is then reprogrammed to make new viruses until the healthy cells burst and die. Unlike bacteria, most viruses cause diseases and attack specific cells in the body.

According to Duke Medicine, an integration of the Duke University Health System, Duke University School of Medicine, and the Duke University School of Nursing, bacterial infections may occur as a secondary infection after a virus initially infects a person. This is because during the initial infection, the body’s resistance is decreased which allows the bacterial infection to infiltrate the body.

A physician will suspect a bacterial infection if symptoms last longer than 10 to 14 days which is longer than that of a virus infection. A high fever that gets worse rather than better is also another sign of a bacterial infection.

Another indication of a bacterial infection is the presence of pus. For example, in the case of strep throat (bacterial tonsillitis), white-coloured pus is usually found on the tonsils. Pus is the response of the body’s immune system response and will accumulate at the site of inflammation.

Treatment and protection

Tests to diagnose bacterial infections include a complete blood count, blood culture, urine culture or spinal culture.

The discovery of antibiotics meant that bacterial infections can be treated successfully. However, due to the adaptable nature of bacteria, there has been a surge in antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections. Besides bacteria being highly adaptable, there’s also the prescription of antibiotics to fight viral infections and this just does not work at all.

Vaccines were developed in order to reduce the number of viral diseases such as measles, chickenpox and polio along with bacterial diseases such as tuberculosis, tetanus, cholera and more. Other vaccines can prevent flu infections, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, HPV (human papillomavirus) and more.

It is very important to be fully vaccinated in order to prevent both viral and bacterial diseases. The Ministry of Malaysia’s vaccination schedule for babies is a guideline for parents and physicians to follow. This is because having most of the population vaccinated against a disease protects the unvaccinated (pregnant women, infants, immunocompromised people) in what’s known as herd immunity. Check out our sidebar to see the immunisation schedule of the Ministry of Health Malaysia.

As with any illness, always see a doctor whenever you display any symptoms in order to catch the infection early on and treat it successfully.

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