Viral vs. Bacterial Infections, part 1

Tis the season for all of us to start getting those irritating colds again. As we all suffer through these, it’s important to be able to tell the difference between viruses and bacterial infections.

The most common causes of acute infections such as colds or the stomach “flu” is viruses. It’s very easy to get viral infections confused with bacterial ones. A lot of things have changed in medicine, including how we diagnose and treat both of these types of infections.

We used to think that all sore throats, stomach infections, and sinus infections were caused by bacteria and should be treated with antibiotics like penicillin. We now know that that isn’t true and, in fact, these are almost always caused by viruses, except in a few cases.

Because we used to treat all infections with antibiotics, this caused a new problem called “antibiotic resistance”. Unfortunately, we are now seeing more and more cases of problems like pneumonia or skin infections that are resistant to most antibiotics, which means that the bacteria causing them can only be treated with a few antibiotics, many of which are either expensive or IV only.

Why does this matter to you? Surely, a healthy young person is not going to end up with a pneumonia or other disease that cannot be treated with just any antibiotic… or so we think. However, think of it this way. There are some bacteria that are naturally resistant to certain antibiotics or others that can become resistant thru another type of bacteria. You can also get antibiotic resistant infections from other people thru coughing or unwashed hands. If you do get one of these infections, you could even end up in the hospital which can be very expensive. Even if you do have insurance, you will still be missing several days of work.

This is what we mean by “antibiotic resistance”. The most important thing to remember is that viruses, unfortunately, have to get better on their own, so you don’t want or need to take antibiotics like penicillin for these. The good thing about viruses is that you usually feel back to normal in a week or so. The bad thing is that during that week, especially the first few days, you feel miserable. But there are lots of things you can do to at least help with some of your symptoms. To be continued in part 2…