Bacterial vs Viral Infections: What is the Difference?


There has been a great deal of attention recently paid towards the spread of infections. Often when people discuss the spread of infection, they often talk about bacteria, viruses and other pathogens like fungi and parasites, like they are all the same. We even often use the term “germs” to cover all of these types of organisms.

However, these “germs” are actually quite different and behave different. It is important to understand the differences between bacteria and viruses in particular so that we know how to protect ourselves from these different types of infections.
What are bacteria and viruses?
Bacteria and viruses are both micro-organisms that can infect humans and other animals, causing infection.
Bacteria are tiny, single-cell microorganisms. There are many different types of bacteria and they can have many different shapes or structural features. They can live pretty much anywhere, on any surface, including on the human body as well as inside it. Pathogenic bacteria, only a small fraction of all of the different types of bacteria, are those that can cause infections in humans.
Viruses are  also a tiny microorganism, even smaller than bacteria. There are also many different types of bacteria coming in a wide variety of shapes and features. Viruses are parasitic, meaning they need living cells or tissues in order to grow. They invade human or animal cells and use those cells or components of those cells to grow and multiply.
The Key Differences Between Bacteria and Viruses
As you may be able to gather from the information above, one difference between bacteria and viruses is that bacteria can live on any surface living or otherwise, whereas viruses need to use living cells and tissues in order to survive and grow. It should be noted, however, that this doesn’t mean that viruses cannot survive outside of living cells and tissue for some time: research has shown that COVID-19 can live up to three days on some surfaces.
Although microscopic, bacteria are relatively complex organisms, composed of a rigid wall and a thin rubbery membrane surrounding the fluid inside the cell. Viruses, on the other hand, have a core of genetic material, surrounded be a protective membrane made of protein. This means that some viruses can be killed by any kind of soap of detergent as this destroys the membrane and kills the virus.
Another notable difference between bacteria and viruses is that antibiotics are effective in killing bacteria, but have no effect on viruses. This has huge implications for treatment of viral infections, and can cause issues if people try to treat them with antibiotics.
Bacterial Infections
The vast majority of bacteria are harmless, and there are even some kinds of good bacteria, such as the ones that help us to digest food and maintain a healthy gut. There are some kinds of bacteria, however, that cause infections that can make us sick. Some common bacterial infections include strep throat, tuberculosis, and urinary tract infections. There are also sexually transmitted bacterial infections such as gonorrhoea, as well as some very serious bacterial infections like bacterial meningitis, Lyme disease, and tetanus. 
Bacterial infections can be treated with antibiotics, although targeted antibiotics specific to the type of bacteria are most effective. Overuse or misuse of antibiotics has also led to the emergence of certain strains of bacteria that are antibiotic-resistant and therefore more difficult to treat.
Viral Infections
Viral infections are also extremely common, and can range from very mild infections such as the common cold and Chickenpox to serious and even deadly diseases like viral hepatitis, Zika, and AIDS/HIV. Viral infections can be transmitted from person to person through close contact with an infected person, contact with bodily fluids from an infected person, or contact with contaminated surfaces. It is also possible to pick up a viral infection through an insect bite or from eating food that is contaminated.
Prevention and Treatment
When it comes to preventing the spread of both bacteria and viruses is key. Hygiene in hospitals is critical, as it is in the home, public places and workplaces, in order to fight both bacteria and viruses. In all of these settings, bacteria and viruses can be eliminated through exemplary hygiene practices and thorough, regular cleaning. There are some differences when it comes to cleaning products for bacteria and viruses. As mentioned, many viruses can be killed with soaps and detergents, while bacteria require an antibacterial soap or detergent. Bleach and chlorine are effective against both.

When it comes to treatment, bacterial infections can be treated with antibiotics, that will either kill the bacteria completely or stop the microbes from multiplying. Antibiotics should only be prescribed by a doctor and should be used appropriately to prevent the growing issue of antibiotic resistance. Viral infections, on the other hand, are most commonly treated by managing the symptoms and allowing the body’s immune system to eliminate the infection. In a few limited cases, antiviral medicines may be used to treat certain viruses, for example HIV/AIDs and cold sores.

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