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 Virus vs. Bacteria

By Heather L. Zimmerman, M.D.

Virus vs. Bacteria image

​​​Viruses, like the common cold or influenza are not alive and must invade living cells to grow. The body’s own immune system must fight off the virus or let it run ​its course. Viral infections are usually accompanied by multiple symptoms such as a sore throat, runny nose, congestion, vomiting and diarrhea.

Bacteria are living organisms and can be found everywhere. There are times when the body’s immune system may not be able to fight off a bacterial infection. Antibiotics work to kill the bacteria by stopping its growth. Bacterial infections often go together with pain, aches, or sore areas of the body.



Virus vs. Bacteria

Dr. Sawyer, Boys Town Pediatrics

In Pediatrics where it is relevant, the virus and the bacteria are different in the illnesses that they cause and then basically also the way that they are treated.  Viruses are much more common than bacteria especially in Pediatrics.  I would say nine out of ten times, viruses are what are causing your child's illnesses.

Usually viruses are a little bit more like your typical cold if we are talking about more the respiratory illnesses.  With a virus you could have a fever for three to four days and then you typically have cough and congestion that can last believe it or not, up to two weeks.  I think a lot of patients and parents are a little bit surprised by the fact that viruses can last so long and they often times get frustrated with that. 

So bacteria usually when you're talking about a respiratory infection usually actually comes on the tail end of the virus, so you'll have the viral infection first and instead of getting better after the ten day, two week mark, you start getting worse again.  You all of a sudden get a new fever.  You start having new symptoms develop and that might be a sign of a bacterial infection.  In some cases you do start out with bacteria, but those are more cases like skin infections.  Sometimes other types of stomach infections may be more from a bacterial source, something that you ate that was contaminated with bacteria. 

So viruses and bacteria are treated very differently.  For bacteria we almost always treat it with an antibiotic.  There are a few circumstances where we don't need to use an antibiotic.  With viruses for the most part we treat with what we call supportive case, so basically managing our symptoms and the body usually takes care of it in ​about ten to fourteen days.

Both viral and bacterial infections are spread the same way:

  • Sneezing/coughing
  • Shaking hands
  • Touching food with dirty hands
  • Contact with body fluids such as blood and saliva

There is really no way to prevent your child from coming in contact with germs, but there are steps you can take to help prevent them from spreading. Encourage your child to wash his or her hands after meals and snacks and playing with toys. Hand sanitizers are just as effective as soap and water. If your child is sick, keep him or her home from daycare, school, grocery stores and other public places.

A thorough examination by your child’s doctor will be helpful in distinguishing between viral and bacterial infections.

Contact your child’s physician anytime you have questions about your child’s health.​