Dr. Gray's Straight Talk

Honest and blunt healthcare discussion and advice.

Fight Colds and Flu Naturally, Part Two

Posted by Dr. Gray on Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Bacterial or viral? What’s the difference?

First the basics: Bacteria are live cellular organisms that can reproduce and survive on their own. They reproduce by cellular division similar to the process our cells go through. There are millions of species of bacteria. Some are harmful, and some are not. In fact, tons of bacteria are already in, on, and around us. Our body regulates their growth and population through the normal operation of the immune system. Most are harmless, and can actually play a vital role in a few bodily functions. However, some bacteria can be very dangerous if left untreated. Often, bacterial infection and illness is caused by normal bacteria located in abnormal places, or growing out of control due to a weakened immune system.

On the other hand, viruses are non-living organisms that are basically little packets of genetic material. Viruses must have a host organism to invade and attack. Once inside the host cell, the virus takes over the internal function of the cell and uses it to produce thousands more genetic copies of itself. This is how viruses reproduce. Most often, the host cell is destroyed and the thousands of new viruses go out in search of new host cells.

In Part One of this series, we discussed the fact that antibiotics don’t kill viruses. We briefly talked about the negatives of using antibiotics when the underlying infection is viral. Now, how about a few generalizations about how to tell the difference between the two? These are not concrete, but are the “usual” expectations, findings, or warning signs. That said, here are a few starting points:

  • In general, viral infections tend to be more broad (multiple areas affected), while bacterial infections tend to be more localized (single area affected).
  • Viral infections are most often associated with low-grade fever, but can cause a higher fever (up to about 102 F) for a couple days at onset. Bacterial infections are more often associated with high-grade fevers, especially those that rise above 102 F or last longer than two days.
  • Mucous in viral infections tend to be yellow-colored, while bacterial infections are generally associated with green-colored mucous.
  • A sore, red throat is probably viral. However, if there are white patches on the areas of the tonsils, it’s probably bacterial (or fungal).
  • Rashes associated with viral infection tend to cover large areas or the whole body, while those associated with bacterial infection may look more like an isolated spot or group of spots (like diaper rash).

There are blood tests, cultures, and other tests your doctor can perform to more accurately diagnose infections, but most of the time, these are unnecessary. More often than not, your body will fight off the infection on its own just like it is designed to do. Your actions, diet, lifestyle, environment, and history all play a role in how efficiently your immune system can react to viral or bacterial invaders. You can do things that will help fight them off and get you through the symptom phase quickly… or you can do things that will feed the infection, make it worse, and cause it to last longer and do more damage. More on that in our next post…

Until then, keep this in mind: Most infections can be treated naturally and don’t need antibiotics, vaccines, over-the-counter medications, or other poisonous pharmaceutical intervention. We’ll talk about how to treat them next time, but let me be clear… there are also times when medical intervention is absolutely necessary, and sooner rather than later. Get to the hospital, emergency room, or doctor’s office immediately if you experience any of the following symptoms/signs: sudden onset of fever above 104 F; persistent fever above 102 F for more than three days; persistent vomiting and/or diarrhea causing dehydration; delirium or confusion; severe headache and vomiting; sudden unexplained stiffness in the neck; or seizures.

Article by: Dr. James Gray


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