Viral Infections vs Bacterial Infections: What’s the Difference?

Detox + Immune System General Wellness

One of the most common questions my patients ask me during cold winter months is: “how do I know if I have a cold or the flu?”

So in this blog post, as part of our month-long series on immune health, I want to answer that question as well as provide you with the information you need to distinguish between a viral infection and a bacterial infection.

As the temperature drops and we get further into winter, it’s very common for me to have patients come in with a cold, the flu, upper respiratory infections, and sinus infections. This happens so commonly in winter because our bodies can become easily depleted in colder temperatures, allowing infections to spread more quickly.

Both the common cold and the flu are viral infections that can be spread through airborne contact, meaning you can catch a cold if you breathe in air or touch surface that has been infected with the cold or flu virus through sneezing, coughing, or phlegm.

If you’re traveling on an airplane where the air is stagnant and recycled, work with children, or are a healthcare practitioner, it’s very likely that you will contract a viral infection during the winter months!

So now you know that a cold and flu are both viral infections, but how do you know which one you have when you get sick?

A cold is generally milder than the flu and presents with the following symptoms:
  • sore throat that goes away after a day or two
  • runny nose or congestion
  • a cough that goes away after day four or five
  • mild headache
  • fatigue
  • low fever (99-100 degrees), especially in children
The flu has similar symptoms, but they tend to last longer, come on more quickly, and are much more intense:
  • muscle aches and soreness
  • sore throat
  • headaches
  • congestion
  • cough
  • sometimes vomiting and diarrhea

Cold symptoms typically last about a week, while the flu can leave you feeling sick and run down for a week or more.

Neither of these is a bacterial infection, so they do not require antibiotics to treat.

However, if the symptoms persist for longer than a week, it’s a good idea to schedule a visit with your healthcare provider as a viral infection, like a cold or the flu, can sometimes turn into a bacterial infection, like pneumonia, bronchitis, a sinus infection, or an ear infection.

It is not uncommon for a viral infection to turn into a bacterial infection and this occurs in part due to the amount and type of mucus that the body produces when you have a cold or the flu – a thick solution that is used to expel the virus from the body through sneezing and coughing. This mucus is the body’s natural defense, but it can also be the ideal environment for bacteria to grow and bacterial infections, like strep throat and bacterial pneumonia to develop.

It’s hard to differentiate between a bacterial infection and a viral infection by symptoms alone, so I always run lab work to check internal inflammation and white blood cell count if I suspect a bacterial infection. This data helps me to determine if my patient’s persistent, intense symptoms, and fever, are being caused by a virus or bacteria.

If the testing determines that a bacterial infection is present, antibiotics are recommended, along with other more holistic therapies that can help to provide immune support.

I will talk more in-depth about intravenous (IV) therapies and other holistic immune support methods (like these) that I recommend in the next blog post of this series on immunity and immune health. In the meantime, stay warm and well.


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