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How to Tell the Difference Between
Viral and Bacterial Infection

Being in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic has led many of us to think a little more deeply about viruses and bacteria. We've all heard of tuberculosis, cholera, and smallpox, but which are viral infections and which are bacterial?

When considering viral vs bacterial infections, they feature many similarities. But, they also have some significant differences. So how can you tell the two apart?

Keep reading to find out how to tell the difference between viral and bacterial infections.


First, let's start with the difference between viral and bacterial infection mediums. Both are spread by coughing and sneezing or physical contact (whether that's between two people or between a person and an object). Contact with an animal carrying the disease can also cause the infection. This includes pets, insects, and livestock.

For example, a tickborne illness could be either a viral or bacterial infection because ticks can carry both viruses and bacteria. These infections might then be passed on to a pet, followed by their owner, or directly to the human themself.

What's more, both viral and bacterial infections can be transmitted from a mother to her child during pregnancy or birth. They can also be picked up by consuming a contaminated source of food or drink.

Thus, we've seen that the ways an infection can be spread are the same for viral and bacterial infections.


Next, we'll consider how the symptoms of bacterial and viral infections can differ. Both types of infections can cause short-term illnesses, long-term (or chronic) illnesses, and also latent infections. This is when the microbe lies dormant in the host's body, potentially for years, before becoming symptomatic.

Both bacterial and viral infections can cause flu-like symptoms. Inflammation, vomiting, and diarrhea are also possible features.

Symptoms of bacterial infections tend to last longer than symptoms of viral illnesses. It is also worth remembering that you can get a bacterial and viral infection at the same time. When this occurs, the infection is usually viral to start with and later becomes bacterial.


Making a bacterial vs viral infection diagnosis can be very difficult to do from home. As we've seen, the two types of infections can display almost identical symptoms. However, it is important to correctly identify which type of infection you or a loved one has because they are treated very differently.

A doctor may need to take a urine or blood sample, or a nose or throat swab, in order to determine which type of illness you have.

Bacterial infections are treated with antibiotics. It is essential not to take a course of antibiotics unnecessarily. Meanwhile, viral infections are treated with paracetamol in the case of fever. There are also antiviral medicines such as the ones available for HIV.

Now You Know the Difference Between Viral vs Bacterial Infections

We've now considered how methods of transmission, symptoms, and treatments vary between viral and bacterial infections. Remember when in doubt, you should consult a doctor and obtain the required treatment.

If you found this article about viral vs bacterial infections helpful, make sure to read our other health-related posts!

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