One of the most common questions we get from patients is, "What’s the difference between viruses and bacteria?" We’re glad you asked! Here’s some helpful information about what viruses and bacteria are, how they differ, and how treatment changes depending on which kind of organism is causing the infection.
- Bacteria are single-celled microorganisms that can live and reproduce on their own. Viruses are much smaller particles that require a host cell in order to survive and replicate.
- Only 1% of bacteria that exist in the world is harmful to humans. In fact, bacteria can often be helpful! Examples of "good" bacteria include the bacteria that colonize the intestines, skin and vaginal canal. Viruses, on the other hand, are much more likely to cause infections in humans.
- There are more vaccines to prevent viral infections than bacterial infections. Examples of vaccines to prevent viruses include Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B, influenza, Herpes Varicella-Zoster (the virus that causes chicken pox and shingles), Human Papillomavirus (HPV), rabies, polio, measles, mumps and rubella vaccines.
- Antibiotics can only treat bacterial infections; they don’t have any effect on curing viruses. So, if you have symptoms of an infection, it’s important to have a medical evaluation to determine whether your infection is viral or bacterial. If it’s bacterial, antibiotics are often prescribed for treatment. However, if your infection is viral (as is often the case with colds, sore throats and coughs), antibiotics won’t help and can actually cause harmful side effects, as well as antibiotic resistance.
- While most viral infections resolve on their own with time and symptomatic treatment, there are a handful of antiviral medications that treat viral infections including influenza, cold sores, genital herpes, shingles, HIV and Hepatitis B and C. Ask your medical provider for recommendations on at-home treatments for viral infections.
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