Bacterial and viral infections are different, but they also have plenty of similarities. Both infections are caused by microbes. Bacterial infections are due to bacteria, and viral infections are due to viruses. Knowing their differences can help you understand how they are diagnosed and treated.

Bacteria versus Virus

Bacteria are microorganisms with a single cell, and they can live and thrive in different environments. Some bacteria can dwell in extreme cold or hot temperatures. Not all bacteria, however, are dangerous. Some species live inside the human body (trillions of them), doing various roles to help the body perform its functions, such as in digesting foods, providing nutrients, and fighting off infections.

Viruses, meanwhile, can’t survive on their own. They are tinier than the smallest bacteria, and they need living hosts for them to thrive and multiply. The hosts include people, animals, and even plants. What they do is attach to the body’s cells, redirecting the host cell’s functions into reproducing the virus.

Transmission and Symptoms

Bacterial and viral infections have similar ways of transmission. The contamination can happen by coughing and sneezing or having direct contact with an infected person, such as by kissing or having sexual intercourse.

Transmission can also result from touching contaminated surfaces, ingesting contaminated food and drinks, and in some cases having contact with infected animals, including pets, insects and livestock.

Bacterial and viral infections also have similar symptoms. These include the following:

  • Coughing
  • Sneezing
  • Fever
  • Inflammation
  • Fatigue
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting

These symptoms are an indication that your immune system is hard at work in fighting off the virus or bacteria. Bacterial and viral infections can cause a range of health issues, from mild to moderate to severe. Some can lead to serious health complications that ultimately lead to death.

Diagnosis and Treatment

Given the similarities of their symptoms, sometimes it can be hard to distinguish viral and bacterial infections from each other. It is best to consult your doctor if you are ill, and they will be able to determine whether it is due to bacteria or a virus. They may perform specific tests, such as blood or urine tests, or a tissue culture test to validate their diagnosis.

Due to their very different physiology, bacterial and viral infections are treated differently.

Bacterial Infections

Bacterial infections are treated with antibiotics, which will not work on viral infections. Antibiotics are one of the greatest advancements and innovations in the medical field.

However, overuse or improper use of antibiotics can make bacteria resistant to them at some point. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over 2.8 million people get antibiotic-resistant infections in the US every year, and over 35,000 of them die.

The most common bacterial infections include the following:

  • Strep throat
  • Urinary tract infection
  • Gonorrhea
  • Tuberculosis
  • Lyme disease
  • Tetanus
  • Cellulitis

Viral Infections

Viral infections are treated with vaccines. Another huge breakthrough in the medical field, vaccines have prevented many diseases that could otherwise kill or maim millions of people. There are also antiviral medications, but some of these can allow some microbes to become resistant to drugs. Data from the CDC has showed that in 2016, about 4.1 million emergency patients were diagnosed with viral infections, and nearly half a million of them were hospitalized.

Some of the most common viral infections are below:

  • COVID-19
  • Common cold
  • Influenza
  • Chickenpox
  • Measles
  • Warts
  • HIV


Aside from antibiotics and antiviral medications, you can do a few things to manage the symptoms of both bacterial and viral infections. These include eating soups and drinking warm fluids, taking paracetamol when you’re uncomfortable or have a fever, getting plenty of rest, drinking more water, and taking vitamins and dietary supplements.


As always, prevention is better than cure, and we can’t emphasize that enough. Here are some ways you can help prevent contracting a bacterial or viral infection.

  • Practice good hygiene, especially washing your hands.
  • Get vaccinated.
  • Practice safe sex.
  • Ensure a clean environment, particularly your home.
  • Cook your foods thoroughly.
  • Use insect repellent.
  • Boost your immune system.

Both bacterial and viral infections can cause mild to severe symptoms. They also spread in various ways, which you can help to manage through good hygiene, getting vaccinated, and staying home to recover. If symptoms are severe, consulting your doctor is necessary to get a proper diagnosis because treatments for bacterial infections will not work on viral infections and vice versa.

Jeff Moji

Hi there. I'm Jeff Moji, an engineer, information technologist, and health enthusiast. I have set up this website to explore the best ways to keep fit and healthy as I grow older during this pandemic-prone time. Please keep in touch so we can exchange information and spur one another on.

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