Bacterial vs Viral Infections

What's the difference between a bacterial infection and a viral infection?

By Dr. Patience McCoy, ACNP, PhD



Viral or bacterial, it's never fun to have an infection. But knowing the difference between the two can be the best way to get better. While bacteria and viruses can both cause mild to serious infections, they are different from each other. This is important to understand, because bacterial and viral infections must be treated differently. The most important distinction between bacteria and viruses is that antibiotic drugs usually kill bacteria, but they aren't effective against viruses. Misusing antibiotics to treat viral infections leads to the problem of antibiotic resistance. Which means when you actually need an antibiotic- it won’t work as effectively anymore.



Both viral and bacterial infections are spread in similar ways:

  • Coughing and sneezing

  • Contact with infected people, especially through kissing or sharing drinks

  • Contact with contaminated surfaces, food, and water

  • Contact with infected creatures, including pets, livestock, and insects like fleas and ticks


There are several non-prescription drug measures you can try for relief of your symptoms. Besides getting ALOT of rest of drinking ALOT of fluids, here are some other suggestions:

Common Cold:

  • Use a cool mist humidifier or vaporizer

  • Avoid smoking, secondhand smoke, and other pollutants

  • Take nonprescription meds like acetaminophen or ibuprofen to relieve pain or fever

  • Use saline nasal spray for congestion

  • Use honey for a cough

Sore Throat:

  • Ice chips, sore throat spray, popsicles, or lozenges

  • Gargle with salt water

Sinus Pain/Pressure:


  • A warm compress over the nose and forehead can help relieve sinus pressure

  • Take a steam shower to break up sinus congestion


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