Viral vs. Bacterial Infection: What is the Difference?
The winter season often brings with it illnesses which have symptoms like congestion, a sore throat or a cough. Unfortunately for parents, these troublesome conditions don’t necessarily help narrow down what your child’s sickness is. There are two types of germs that cause these symptoms —bacteria or a virus — and both cause seemingly similar illnesses. So what is the difference between a virus like the common cold and a bacterial infection and how can you tell?
Bacteria are living organisms that exist as single cells. Bacteria are everywhere, do not always cause harm and in some cases are beneficial. However, some bacteria can cause illness by invading your child’s body, multiplying and then interfering with normal bodily processes. The treatment for bacterial infections is usually antibiotics, which work to kill the living organisms by stopping their growth and reproduction.
Viruses are different. They are not alive and do not exist on their own— they are particles containing genetic material wrapped in a protein coat. Viruses, instead, can grow and reproduce after they invade other living cells. They can be fought off by your child’s immune system before causing illness, but others, like the common cold, must just run their course. Viral infections do not respond to antibiotics at all, but instead require lots of rest, hydration and treatment of the symptoms.
If you are struggling to determine what type of infection your child has, see his or her doctor for help. Your pediatrician will determine whether antibiotics are necessary for a bacterial infection or suggest ways to treat your child’s symptoms for a viral infection.
For more information on viruses and bacteria, visit these helpful resources:
- A to Z: Viral Infection
- The Danger of Antibiotic Overuse
- Common Cold