Viral infection versus bacterial infection - What is the difference?

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Over 34 million antibiotics are prescribed each year here in the UK. But did you know that antibiotics have no effect on viral infections and that the common cold is caused by a viral infection?

Richard Wells, superintendent pharmacist with Weldricks, offers an insight into viral infections and bacterial infections and asks ‘what’s the big difference?’

“As winter approaches, more and more of us will pick up an infection of some sort – either a viral or bacterial infection. But what actually is an infection and how do we get them? An infection simply means the body has picked up an organism that attacks the normal cells and such infections mainly affect the nose, mouth, throat and lungs.

“Signs that you have a infection include a raised temperature, inflamed tonsils and lymph nodes but you won’t know if the infection is viral or bacterial because a sore throat, for example, can also because by other factors such as trauma or chemicals, most notably from the stomach.

“In the majority of cases this organism will be a virus (a viral infection), a cellular structure that can replicate itself. In replicating, it causes a reaction in the body to fight the organism and get rid of it. That fight is the symptoms we all love to hate such as a cough, sneezing, runny nose and sore throat, or all four!

“Viruses have been around for millennia and we live with many viruses with no problem but some of them cause us to react. The common cold virus is the most common virus we see people presenting with in our pharmacies. When it strikes the only way to treat it is with symptomatic relief products such as nasal sprays that reduce swelling in the nasal passages and clear a stuffy nose and headache. In two to five days, the cold virus will usually be defeated as the body wins the fight.

“The other fact about the common cold virus is it’s not just one single virus. There are multiple viruses that affect your upper respiratory tract and those viruses are changing and adapting all the time which make it extremely difficult to develop a vaccine for the common cold.

“Then there’s the flu virus which attacks the body in a similar way. The flu virus however doesn’t mutate as much as the common cold virus. That’s why each year a flu vaccine is developed from flu virus types that are common in the Far East and Australia early in the year. They are, therefore, the ones most likely to appear in the UK when our flu season starts. Flu can be contracted all year round but it’s most common in the winter months simply because we tend to remain indoors more breathing the same air thus making it easier for the virus to spread.

“Now on to bacteria and bacterial infections. Bacteria are completely different organisms to viruses but they do have a few similarities. They too have been around for thousands of years and are present in our bodies all the time – think about the ‘good bacteria’ in our gut that help us to digest food and keep us healthy on the inside. Bacteria can be picked up, just like viruses, but they actually cause damage our cellular structure and sometimes release other chemicals that see our bodies to react dramatically such as with septicaemia that can shut down the entire cellular system and be very dangerous.”

How can we manage these differences?

“In the 1950s antibiotics were discovered and many are still natural substances such as penicillin which has a competitive agent that kills off bacteria. Antibiotics work by stopping bacteria from reproducing or dividing or physically damaging the bacteria. Conversely, the development of antivirals has been much more difficult simply because of the way in which a virus is constructed.

“The main point to note from this article is that if your infection is a virus, antibiotics will NOT help! They will have zero effect and the fact that people take antibiotics when really they shouldn’t means that resistance will build up over time and the antibiotic is no longer effective.

“Take the rise and rise of MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus – the clue’s in the name!) and clostridium difficile in hospitals. Bacteria are very clever and adept at changing to try and stay one step ahead of us as demonstrated by these two bacterial infections in particular.

“If we’re not careful, all the antibiotics we currently use to treat bacterial infections will cease to be effective – it is believed that 10% of the 34 million antibiotics handed out each year are inappropriate. This is why the Government has launched its ‘Antibiotic Guardianship’ programme. It encourages hospitals, GPs and pharmacists to sign up and work together to inform and educate the public to only use antibiotics when appropriate with the aim of extending the life of the antibiotics we have available.

“There is no quick test to check whether you’re suffering from a viral or bacterial infection so we must respect and understand both types of infection and treat them accordingly. That way we can all remain as healthy as possible and prevent infections getting the better of us.”

For more information, visit your local Weldricks Pharmacy or visit their website Weldricks Pharmacy