Bacteria vs. virus – what’s the difference?

Bacterial illnesses and viral ones may make you feel equally bad, but knowing the distinctions between the two can be important for monitoring and understanding your health. 

Here’s the nutshell version:

  • Bacteria are single-celled microorganisms and can thrive in soil, plants, water, living and dead organisms, including humans. They reproduce independently through binary fission.
  • Viruses do not have a cellular structure, nor can they replicate outside host cells. They are pathogenic and can infect all living organisms, including bacteria.

Ok, neat – but how does this impact your health?

Some bacteria are beneficial to humans. However, we can contract bacterial infections a number of ways, including consuming contaminated food and contact with an infected person. Most bacterial infections like strep throat and sinus infections are easily treated with antibiotics. 

Viruses invade a host cell and reprogram it to reproduce the virus’s genetic structure. The host cell then bursts, releasing more copies of the virus that can attack other cells. This replication cycle is why it is very difficult to treat viral infections. Antiviral medications can help individuals infected with influenza or HIV. However, a typical viral infection must simply run its course.

What about the impact on public health?

Most people don’t understand the difference between bacterial and viral infections, so the unnecessary use of antibiotics has promoted the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate more than 2 million Americans are infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria every year, of which at least 23,000 die.

The takeaway? 

Bacterial and viral infections can have similar symptoms, but they are very different in terms of treatment. Always take precautions to avoid infection and consult your doctor before taking any medication.