Virus vs Bacteria
Dr. Emily Hill Bowman Boys Town Internal Medicine
We need to always differentiate between a virus and a bacteria that is causing the illness when you’re in clinic. If it’s a viral illness, typically symptoms are shorter lasting and classically the symptoms include fever, chills, sore throat, nasal congestion, runny nose, cough, and a lot of times you can have some body aches. A lot of times the symptoms last for maybe three days to a week and then slowly get better over time. Sometimes the cough can be persistent up to a month.
On the other hand if there’s a bacterial infection, a lot of times that can happen secondary to a virus, so sometimes you have viral symptoms at the onset and then over time then you develop a secondary infection. Sometimes that is a sinus infection so there’s more nasal congestion and headache. Sometimes that can be acute bronchitis which is irritation and inflammation of the chest and the lining of the lungs. Sometimes that can be an ear infection or strep throat, so a lot of times if somebody has symptoms of a viral illness will actually not have them come into the office and talk about some conservative measures you can do at home, but then if there’s ever any concerns of a bacterial infection, then we’ll have people come in the clinic for evaluation.
For viral illnesses there is a lot of things that you can do over the counter to help your symptoms. Unfortunately there is no medication that we can give that will speed your recovery, so mainly it’s making you feel better while your body’s fighting off the infection over about a week’s time. So some of the best things you can take over-the-counter are anti-inflammatory medicines, things like ibuprofen or Tylenol. What that does is it helps with body aches, fevers, chills, sore throat, and other aches and pains related to the illness. Other things that you can take are over-the-counter decongestants, something like Sudafed which is pseudoephedrine or phenylephrine which is in a lot of combination cough and cold medicines. What that does is help clear up the nose so helps with congestion of the nose and helps dry it out so there’s less runny nose. Other things that we will tell people to take, is over-the-counter guaifenesin which is Mucinex. It’s an expectorant which means it helps thin the secretions and loosen the cough. Sometimes antihistamines can help, sometimes not and then also for cough suppression, one of the best things that we recommend over the counter is dextromethorphan which brand name would be Delsym or Robitussin, they can help calm down the cough.
You’d call the clinic and usually talk to the nurses to see if you need to be evaluated and then based on what’s going on, based on your exam, we talk about whether you need antibiotics at that time. For a viral illness, unfortunately there is no medicine like an antibacterial or an antiviral medicine that will speed the recovery. We really just treat the symptoms, whereas if it’s a bacterial infection, that’s when we use antibiotics. We don’t use antibiotics for viral infections because it does not speed the recovery and we could be introducing you to side effects and problems related to the medicine.
Viruses and bacteria are different in the illnesses that
they cause and how they are treated. Dr. Hill Bowman, an Internist at Boys Town
Internal Medicine, explains the difference between viruses and bacteria.