Most bacterial and viral infections are contagious, and different types of pathogens may lead to symptoms of varying severity. Some illnesses may require antibiotics or antiviral treatments, while others may be prevented with the help of vaccinations.

In this article, we take a look at the primary differences between bacterial and viral infections. We explore how these infections are transmitted and treated and what you can do to prevent getting and passing them on.

Bacterial infectionsViral infections
• They stem from bacteria, which are single-celled microorganisms.
• Bacteria may be within or on the human body.
• Not all bacteria are harmful to humans.
• Pathogenic bacteria refer to microorganisms that can make humans sick.
• In some cases, bacterial infections may be treated with antibiotics.
• They stem from viruses, which are a piece of genetic material, such as DNA or RNA, coated with protein.
• Viruses feed off of healthy cells in the body, sometimes killing their host cells as they multiply.
• Certain types of viral infections are treated with antiviral medications.
• Antibiotics can’t cure a viral infection.

Bacterial infections

Bacteria are tiny microorganisms that are made up of a single cell. They’re very diverse and can have a large variety of shapes and structural features.

Bacteria can live in almost every conceivable environment, including in or on the human body.

Only a handful of bacteria cause infections in humans. These bacteria are referred to as pathogenic bacteria.

Viral infections

Viruses are another type of tiny microorganism, although they’re even smaller than bacteria. Like bacteria, they’re very diverse and have a variety of shapes and features.

Viruses are parasitic. That means they require living cells or tissue in which to grow.

Viruses can invade the cells of your body, using the components of your cells to grow and multiply. Some viruses even kill host cells as part of their life cycle.

TransmissionBacterial infectionsViral infections
During childbirthXX
Touching contaminated surfacesXX
Body fluidsXX
Close contact with a person who has an infectionXX
Contaminated food or waterXX
Bug bitesXX

Bacterial transmissions

Many bacterial infections are contagious, meaning that they can be transmitted from person to person. There are many ways this can occur, including:

  • close contact with a person who has a bacterial infection, including touching and kissing
  • contact with the body fluids of a person who has an infection, particularly after sexual contact or when the person coughs or sneezes
  • transmission from mother to child during pregnancy or birth
  • coming into contact with surfaces contaminated with the bacteria, such as doorknobs or faucet handles and then touching your face, nose, or mouth

In addition to being transmitted from person to person, bacterial infections can also be transmitted through the bite of an infected insect. Additionally, consuming contaminated food or water can also lead to an infection.

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Viral transmissions

Like bacterial infections, many viral infections are also contagious. They can be transmitted from person to person in many of the same ways, including:

  • coming into close contact with a person who has a viral infection
  • contact with the body fluids of a person with a viral infection
  • transmission from mother to child during pregnancy or birth
  • coming into contact with contaminated surfaces

Also, similarly to bacterial infections, viral infections can be transmitted by the bite of an infected insect or through consuming food or water that has been contaminated.

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How doctors diagnose bacterial and viral infections

  • Physical exam
  • History of symptoms
  • Recent travel history
  • Current epidemics or pandemics in your area
  • Mucus, saliva, urine, or other culture samples
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Sometimes your doctor may be able to diagnose your condition based on your medical history and your symptoms.

For example, conditions like measles or chickenpox have very characteristic symptoms that can be diagnosed with a simple physical examination.

Additionally, if there’s a current epidemic of a particular disease, your doctor will factor that into their diagnosis. An example is influenza, which causes seasonal epidemics in the cold months of every year.

If your doctor wants to know what type of organism may be causing your condition, they may take a sample to culture. Samples that can be used for culture vary by the suspected condition, but they can include:

When a microorganism is cultured, it allows your doctor to identify what’s causing your condition. In the case of a bacterial infection, it can also help them determine which antibiotic may be helpful in treating your condition.

TreatmentsBacterial infection Viral infection
OTC pain relieversX
OTC decongestantsXX

Treating viral infections

There’s no specific treatment for many viral infections. Treatment is typically focused on relieving symptoms, while your body works to clear the infection. This can include things like:

  • drinking fluids to prevent dehydration
  • getting plenty of rest
  • using OTC pain medications, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil) to relieve aches, pains, and fever
  • taking OTC decongestants to help with a runny or stuffy nose
  • sucking on a throat lozenge to help ease a sore throat

Antiviral medications

In some cases, your doctor may prescribe an antiviral medication to help treat your condition. These medications inhibit the viral life cycle in some way. Examples include:

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Treating bacterial infections

Antibiotics are medications used to treat bacterial infections.

There are many types of antibiotics, but they all work to keep bacteria from effectively growing and dividing. They’re not effective against viral infections.

You should only take antibiotics for a bacterial infection. But antibiotics are often requested for viral infections. This is dangerous because over-prescribing antibiotics can lead to antibiotic resistance.

Antibiotic resistance occurs when bacteria adapt to be able to resist certain antibiotics. It can make many bacterial infections more difficult to treat.

If you’re prescribed antibiotics for a bacterial infection, take your entire course of antibiotics — even if you begin to feel better after a couple of days. Skipping doses can prevent killing all of the pathogenic bacteria.

Is my stomach bug bacterial or viral?

When you experience symptoms like nausea, diarrhea, or abdominal cramps, you likely have a stomach bug. But is it due to a viral or bacterial infection?

Stomach bugs generally fall into two categories based on how they’re acquired:

  • Gastroenteritis is an infection of the digestive tract. It’s caused by coming into contact with stool or vomit from a person with the infection, usually as a result of poor hand hygiene or hand-to-surface contact.
  • Food poisoning is an infection of the digestive tract caused by consuming contaminated food or liquids.

Gastroenteritis and food poisoning can be caused by both viruses and bacteria. Regardless of the cause, many times your symptoms will go away in 1 or 2 days with good home care.

However, symptoms that last longer than 3 days, cause bloody diarrhea, or lead to severe dehydration may indicate a more severe infection that requires prompt medical treatment.

Is my cold bacterial or viral?

A cold can cause a stuffy or runny nose, sore throat, and low fever, but is a cold bacterial or viral?

The common cold is caused by a number of different viruses, although rhinoviruses are most often the culprit.

There’s not much you can do to treat a cold except wait it out and use OTC medications to help relieve your symptoms.

In some cases, a secondary bacterial infection may develop during or following a cold. Common examples of secondary bacterial infections include:

How to tell if you’ve developed a secondary bacterial infection

You may have developed a bacterial infection if:

  • symptoms last longer than 10 to 14 days
  • symptoms continue to get worse rather than improve over several days
  • you have a higher fever than normally observed with a cold
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Can you use mucus color to determine if it’s a bacterial or viral infection?

You should avoid using mucus color to determine whether you have a viral or bacterial infection.

There’s a long-held belief that green mucus indicates a bacterial infection that requires antibiotics. In fact, green mucus is actually caused by substances released by your immune cells in response to a foreign invader.

You can have green mucus due to many things, including:

You can follow these tips to help prevent becoming ill with bacterial or viral infections.

Practice good hygiene

Be sure to wash your hands before eating, after using the bathroom, and before and after handling food.

Avoid touching your face, mouth, or nose if your hands aren’t clean. Don’t share personal items, such as:

  • eating utensils
  • drinking glasses
  • toothbrushes

Get vaccinated

Many vaccines are available to help prevent several viral and bacterial illnesses. Examples of vaccine-preventable diseases include:

Talk with your doctor about the vaccines that are available to you.

Don’t go out if you’re sick

Stay home if you’re ill to help prevent transmitting the infection to other people.

If you must go out, wash your hands frequently and sneeze or cough into the crook of your elbow or into a tissue. Be sure to properly dispose of any used tissues.

Practice safe sex

Using condoms or other barrier methods can help prevent getting sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Limiting your number of sexual partners has also been shown to reduce your risk of getting an STI.

Make sure food is cooked thoroughly

Make sure all meats are cooked to the proper temperature. Be sure to thoroughly wash any raw fruits or vegetables before eating.

Don’t let leftover food items sit at room temperature. Instead, refrigerate them promptly.

Protect against bug bites

Be sure to use insect repellent containing ingredients like as DEET or picaridin if you’re going to be outside where insects, such as mosquitoes and ticks, are prevalent.

Wear long pants and long-sleeved shirts, if possible.

Bacteria and viruses cause many common infections, and these infections can be passed on in many of the same ways.

Sometimes your doctor can diagnose your condition by a simple physical examination. Other times, they may need to take a sample to culture to determine if a bacterial or viral infection is causing your illness.

Antibiotics are used to treat bacterial infections. Treatment of viral infections focuses on treating symptoms while the infection runs its course. Although in some cases, antiviral medications may be used.

You can help prevent getting sick with or transmitting bacterial and viral infections by:

  • practicing good hygiene
  • getting vaccinated
  • staying home when you’re sick