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Guest column, Adrianna Kordek: What's making me sick, bacteria or virus?
Adrianna Kordek
Adrianna Kordek

We have all been there — you feel hot, you’re coughing and just feel yucky all over. You know that you are sick and need some type of relief. 

Your mind goes back to that time when a loved one had similar symptoms, and they were promptly hospitalized and started antibiotics. 

The doctor said something like, “Thank goodness you came in! If you had waited much longer, things could have been worse.” So, you go to the clinic to get help. 

You describe your symptoms and expect to be prescribed antibiotics. To your frustration, without any tests or imaging, your healthcare provider tells you that it’s “simply a cold,” and sends you to the drugstore to buy cough medicine and some Tylenol. Didn’t he hear you? 

Understanding the difference between viral and bacterial illnesses can help a patient know what to expect regarding medical treatment. Many types of viruses and bacteria can cause infections in your sinuses, throat, ears, eyes and lungs. Identifying the specific culprit can be challenging but will determine which course of treatment will be the most effective, so it’s important to give a good history to your health care provider.

The following statement may seem obvious, but viral infections are caused by viruses and bacterial infections are caused by bacteria. 

Bacterial infections happen when enough single-celled organisms called bacteria set up camp in your body and use your nutrients to sustain themselves and reproduce. These bacteria can be killed by taking medications called antibiotics.  

Some bacteria have developed defense mechanisms against these medications making them more difficult to eliminate. Similar to how animals evolve to avoid their predators, bacteria may evolve to resist the effects of antibiotics with repeated exposure. 

It may require several intense antibiotics to eliminate these resistant bacteria, posing a challenge to health care providers and drug manufacturers. Therefore, it is very important to select the most effective antibiotic when a bacterial infection is present.

Viruses on the other hand, are not living organisms. They infect our cells not for nutrition but to use our cells’ machinery to create new viruses. 

Medications called antivirals can help your body eliminate certain viral infections. For example, Tamiflu can help reduce the severity and duration of the flu and its symptoms (fever, chills, cough and exhaustion). 

In some cases, the common cold and the flu can present similarly. The flu virus belongs to a family of viruses called influenza. It usually causes more severe symptoms than a cold and can lead to many more serious complications. 

The annual flu shot is the best way to prevent being infected with the most aggressive influenza virus strain of the season. Unfortunately, we do not have medications that can help fight off the many viruses that cause the common cold or other flu-like illnesses. 

These infections are caused by many different viruses that evolve and mutate quickly, making it impossible to create a vaccine to prevent an infection. Fortunately, these viruses rarely, if ever, make you seriously ill, and most people will recover fully within a week or two. 

Viruses are exceptionally contagious and can spread through tiny droplets in the air or by touching your face with unwashed hands. When everybody at home, work or school gets sick at the same time, the infection is usually viral.   

We are entering cold and flu season in the era of COVID-19. The common cold, the flu and COVID-19 are all caused by viruses. Infections like bacterial pneumonia and bacterial bronchitis can feel like the flu but require antibiotics to treat. 

To help distinguish between bacterial or viral infections, your doctor may order labs and/or an imaging study. If you are suffering from a viral illness, you would benefit most by resting and hydrating to obtain symptomatic relief. 

Medicines like Ibuprofen can lower your fever and reduce the inflammation that makes you feel so crummy. You can also use decongestants and cough suppressants for further relief. 

If prescribed medication, it is important that you take the full course of treatment. These infections are very easy to unintentionally share with your loved ones and co-workers.  

Remember to wash your hands and stay home if you feel sick! In the era of COVID-19, our “new normal” includes social distancing, frequently washing hands and wearing a mask. 

As inconvenient as these measures may feel, they help keep us healthy. If it works for preventing the spread of COVID-19, it can also help to reduce the spread of other viruses and bacteria too.

Dr. Adrianna Kordek is a part of the family medicine resident program at Northeast Georgia Health System. Columns will publish monthly from residents in the program.

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