Sunday, December 14, 2008

Viral vs. Bacterial ?


If you are feeling “sick” is there a way to determine if you have a bacterial versus viral infection without going to the clinic? For example, temperature? Swollen glands? Green snot? Coughing up stuff?


The short answer is no. There is no sure fire way to tell without going to the clinic. However, if I were a betting woman, I’d put money on a virus, and I’d win big. Viruses cause the vast majority of respiratory infections. That includes most colds, sinus infections, bronchitis, and most ear and eye infections. It includes most cases of fever, swollen glands, green snot, and coughing up stuff.

For those readers who need it, I’ll explain the difference between viral and bacterial infections. Very broadly speaking, viruses are more common, and bacteria are more dangerous. The practical difference comes in with the question of antibiotics. Antibiotics kill bacteria. Antibiotics do not kill viruses. Your body does, for free. No clinic charge, no pharmacy charge. All it needs is some rest and time.

Now, everyone has a story of going to the doctor for a respiratory infection and leaving with a prescription for antibiotics. We hear it all the time. “Last time I had the same symptoms, and I got antibiotics, and it cleared right up.” Naturally, the patient wants the same treatment this time. The truth is she probably would have gotten better anyway. The timing of the antibiotics with her improvement convinced her that the antibiotics were responsible for her recovery.

Unfortunately, sometimes doctors prescribe antibiotics when they aren’t needed, “just in case.” This causes a couple of problems. For one, it sets up a patient like the one above to expect antibiotics for viral infections. That creates busy clinics and dependent patients, who think they can’t get over a simple cold without professional help.

On a wider scale, when we carpet-bomb bacteria with antibiotics, most bacteria will get killed. But a few will develop resistance to the antibiotic, and survive. Those will multiply and create a whole new group of tougher germs. Now science has to create a stronger antibiotic to kill these super-bugs. There have been some very scary germs created by this exact scenario.

I trust I’ve made my point about viruses. But remember, I said most respiratory infections are caused by viruses. That means some are caused by bacteria. For example, the bacterium Streptococcus pyogenes causes a throat infection commonly called Strep Throat. That definitely requires an antibiotic, to kill the bacteria and prevent dangerous consequences of the infection. Some kinds of pneumonia require an antibiotic, as do some ear and eye infections and, rarely, sinus infections.

If you’re looking for criteria, I suggest the following. If you get a respiratory infection, with the usual sore throat, congestion and cough, give your body a few days to work on it. Take over the counter remedies if you like. Drink lots of liquids to keep the mucous flowing. Try a sinus rinse. But if you have a high fever, a really bad sore throat that lasts for more than a few days, trouble breathing, or symptoms that last longer than a week, come in to the clinic for evaluation. Err on the side of caution, and come in anytime if you have doubts. Call ###-#### for advice or for an appointment.

1 comment:

Jennifer said...

Thank you for the info on the difference between bacterial and viral. I am writing an article about it and searching for facts on the Internet which are actually very hard to find these days. Yours looks very reputable! JB

The Authors of "50 Ways" Interview on KCHF TV

50 Ways to Leave Your 40s TV interview with Phoenix' Pat McMahon