How do you differentiate between Bacterial and viral infections

By Dr Harold Gunatillake - Health Writer

You are in the wilderness, there are no doctors or hospitals in the vicinity, you are carrying antibiotics with you, so the dilemma is to put your thinking cap on and decide on taking or not, of those antibiotics in your bag, during the time of an infection like high fever.

This article will ease that situation for you.

Let’s first get familiarized with these germs. Bacteria are not visible to the naked eye; you need to look for them under the microscope. They are single -celled organisms found everywhere, in every country in the world, in the air, some in water or soil. They are living within you dormant till your immune system gets weak to attack you. Some of these bacteria are beneficial and serve vital functions for the environment. For instance, there are trillions of them in your small and large gut, protecting you. They could be your best friends you bring along from your mother’s birth passage and mother’s milk. They make vitamins in the gut for you; they boost your immune system, and also make your gut, less hospitable to bad bacteria.

Bacterial infections are caused by harmful strains of bacteria in your body. Common diseases produced by these bacteria are Pneumonia, meningitis food poisoning and so on. The thick-walled ones are called ‘Gram-positive’ bacteria whilst the gram negative -ones the wall is not thick.

Viruses are different types of micro-organisms. They are much smaller and cannot multiply on their own, unlike bacteria. All they have is a protein coat and genetic material like RNA or DNA. Viruses need human or other animal contacts to survive, unlike bacteria. Viruses attack specific organs in your bodies, such as the liver, respiratory system, or your blood. When you get flu symptoms, it is always a virus attacking your respiratory system, causing a cough, runny nose, hoarse voice, and breathless. The flu virus has its own life-span and no antibiotics will relieve or expedite the illness.

From your symptoms, you should be able to differentiate between a bacterial and a viral infection. If you get a runny nose (coryza), cough, sneezing, tiredness, and headache you could guess it is a viral cold with sinus affection

If there is a skin infection, like redness and swelling due to cellulitis then it’s most likely due to bacterial infection. Infection of the hair follicles as in pimples is always due to a bacterial infection.

If you get nauseas with or without vomiting, loose motions and fever and abdominal colic, it is more likely a bacterial infection and we call it food poisoning. If it starts with nausea and vomiting without loose motions, it would be something that you ate within hours. On the other hand, with same symptoms you get abdominal colic and diarrhea, it is most likely food poisoning that you ate the previous day.

These bacterial infections are caused by raw or semi-cooked meat, fish, eggs, stale food and unpasteurized dairy kept outside the fridge for bacteria to grow.
Sexually transmitted disease is generally bacterial in origin. Chlamydia and gonorrhea are such infections and bacterial in origin.

Middle ear, infection of the brain membranes (meninges) and urinary tract infections (UTI), are caused by bacteria.

You can always differentiate between a bacterial infection and a viral one by palpating your radial pulse count in the wrist. If you have a fever with a rising pulse count- say over 100 per minutes, it is most likely a bacterial infection. If the pulse is slow with high fever, it is always a viral infection.

The above information will give you a clue whether to take those antibiotics in your bag, if it is bacterial in origin, and not take them if a viral infection is suspected.

So remember, antibiotics fight bacterial infections. Antibiotics are not effective to viral conditions. If you feel that there is a secondary bacterial infection after having a viral infection for a few days and not resolving, it is reasonable to take antibiotics you carry to help cure the secondary infection which may boost the immune system to cure the viral condition.

Antibiotic resistance
Overuse and misuse of antibiotics lead to antibiotic resistance. This means that such antibiotics may not work when such medication is required. Antibacterial –resistant infections are potentially dangerous and increase the risk of death. So, it is important to know when you should take them. It is best for your doctor to prescribe the specific antibiotic to kill an infection, and it is also important that you finish the course, without stopping when feeling better in a day or two.

Antibiotics may resolve your bacterial infection, but they also kill the beneficial bacteria in your gut. So, today doctors advise you to take probiotics like low fat, unsweetened ‘Greek’ type of yogurt, after a course of antibiotics to cure your bacterial infection, to regrow the good gut bacteria (microbiota)

In the wilderness, it is advisable to visit the closest food outlet and enjoy yogurt daily, and that may reduce the risk of developing bacterial food poisoning.

To prevent viral infections like polio, measles and chicken pox vaccines have been developed. Vaccines can prevent such infections such as the flu, hepatitis A, B and human papillomavirus (HPV) and others. Vaccines are not given prophylactically to prevent bacterial infections.

Conclusions: This article helps you to differentiate between bacterial and viral infections even before doing further investigations. If you suspect a viral condition you need rest and temporize with over the counter medications. Avoid antibiotics like the blazes.

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