What is the difference between a viral and bacterial infection?
Viral and Bacterial Infections: What's the Difference?
By Cold and Flu Expert Q&A
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This is going to sound crazy, but I've always wondered: Can you easily tell the difference between a viral and a bacterial infection? I've heard so much about people taking unnecessary antibiotics.
— Cryssta, California
You are absolutely correct that there are many doses of antibiotics being taken unnecessarily. Viral infections that cause the common cold do not respond to antibiotics, and in fact, using them in these situations may create long-term problems because you can build up a resistance to these important drugs.
While there are some clinical predictors that can help a physician decide with confidence whether a given infection is caused by a virus or bacteria, these predictors are far from foolproof. Certain areas of the body, such as the throat, can be cultured to see if bacteria representing an infection are present. Viral cultures are done in select cases as well, because certain viral infections (for example, a herpes virus infection of the eye) require a specific antiviral medication.
Most of the time, however, the history given by the patient and the knowledge and experience of the health care provider lead to a conclusion as to whether or not the infection is most likely viral or bacterial. Antibiotics should be reserved for those cases that have a high likelihood of being bacterial and thus responding to the prescribed medication.
Video: Bacterial vs. Viral Infections - Dr. Andreeff, CHOC Children's
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