Think a good dose of antibiotics will knock that cold or flu out of you? Think again. Antibiotics, if prescribed and taken correctly, usually can kill bacteria but they are useless against viruses such as the cold and flu.
Unlike bacteria, viruses generally require a vaccination to prevent them in the first place or antiviral drugs to treat them. Often, the only treatment for a viral infection is to let the illness run its course.
What’s the difference?
Bacteria: Mostly friendly
Bacteria are single-celled microorganisms that are everywhere—in the air, soil and water, on plants and in animals. Most bacteria—including those in our intestines —are harmless. Some actually help by digesting food and destroying disease-causing microbes, according to the Mayo Clinic, which notes that fewer than 1 percent of bacteria cause disease in people.
Some infections bacteria can cause include strep throat, tuberculosis, and urinary tract infections (UTI).
How is a bacterial infection treated?
Taking a prescribed course of antibiotics according to a doctor’s instructions can kill the infection. Unfortunately, bacteria are adaptable and the overuse of antibiotics has helped create strains of bacteria that have grown resistant to antibiotics. Plus, overuse of antibiotics also can kill off healthy bacteria in your body and may let toxic germs gain a foothold, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease and Control.
Virus: Invading you to stay alive
Viruses are smaller than bacteria and can’t survive without a living host. A virus attaches itself to cells and usually reprograms them to reproduce itself. Also, unlike bacteria, most viruses do cause disease.
Some virus-caused diseases include the common cold, AIDS, herpes, and chickenpox.
Viral infections require either vaccinations to prevent them in the first place—like with vaccinations against polio or the measles—or antiviral drugs to treat them.
How is a viral infection treated?
Antiviral drugs, developed largely in response to the AIDS pandemic, do not destroy a virus but inhibit its development. Antivirals also are available to treat some illnesses like the herpes simplex virus, the flu and shingles, according to Medical News Today.
Antibiotics are not effective against viruses, and the Centers for Disease Control and other health organizations now recommend against using antibiotics unless there is clear evidence of a bacterial infection.
Most viral infections tend to resolve on their own without treatment so any treatment generally is aimed at providing relief from symptoms like pain, fever and cough.
How are they spread?
Both viral and bacterial infections are spread in similar ways:
- Coughing and sneezing
- Contact with infected people, especially through kissing and sex
- Contact with contaminated surfaces, food, and water
- Contact with infected creatures, including pets, livestock, and insects like fleas and ticks.
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