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Virus vs bacterial infection

  • Published at 12:04 pm October 31st, 2014
Virus vs bacterial infection

Your little one is sick again – there’s a runny nose, a nasty cough and a fever. But is it a virus which will mainly respond to rest, fluids and mum’s care or do you need to head to the doctor for a prescription of antibiotics? Many viruses and bacterial infections can appear to have a similar impact on kids. Both make them feel unwell, put them off their food and keep them home from school or childcare. But their treatments can be very different.

What science said?

Bacteria are single-celled micro-organisms that thrive in many different types of environments. Most bacteria don’t harm people and have jobs like breaking down food and inhibiting the growth of bad bacteria. But the ones that get all the nasty press are the disease-causing bacteria called pathogenic. These are the ones that cause pneumonia, middle ear infections, skin infections and bacterial meningitis.

How the pathogenic bacteria make people sick is that they gain access to the body and if the conditions are right, start splitting into two and increasing in number. They need antibiotics to kill them.

Viruses are not cells but tiny micro-organisms that require living hosts (ie a cell) in which to multiply or they can’t survive. When a virus enters the body, it invades some of the cells and takes over the cell machinery, directing it to produce the virus.

Viruses can sometimes be difficult to for the body’s immune system to kill off because they hide inside cells making it difficult for antibodies to reach them. But most common viruses self-resolve within a week or so.

Antibiotics are ineffective in treating viruses although some can be treated with what are called anti-viral drugs.

What parents should consider

If a child is unwell, most parents don’t know if it’s bacterial or viral. The common cold is usually easily diagnosed by parents, but with ear and throat infections, a doctor’s help is needed. The same with potentially serious infections like pneumonia – in this case an X-ray and blood test would be required to make a diagnosis.

Generally, viral illnesses are more common. And children under the age of five years can expect to have 10-12 viruses a year. These could be in the form of upper respiratory tract infections or viral gastroenteritis. Many viruses are self-resolving, without medical intervention that doesn’t mean they are necessarily less dangerous for kids – particularly complications caused by flu like secondary infections and dehydration caused by gastro.

Trust your instincts

Any parent worried about their child’s health should see a doctor. It’s not a parent’s job to diagnose illness. Parents know their children and if their kids seem unusually ill or are not improving, see a doctor immediately. Seek urgent medical advice if the child is: Listless, or difficult to rouse Refusing to drink any fluids or can’t keep fluids down Not passing urine Breathing consistently fast or in a laboured manner In pain

When do you need antibiotics?

It is true that colds and flus are caused by viruses and antibiotics cannot kill viruses and therefore have no role in treating colds and flus.

However, in cases where there may be a secondary bacterial infection such as a sinus, ear infection or chest infection, antibiotics may be warranted.

Sinus or facial pain, headache, upper tooth pain and nasal obstruction with thick green or yellow nasal mucus may indicate a sinus infection, which may require antibiotics. A productive cough with thick yellow, green or blood-stained mucus may suggest bronchitis or a chest infection, which may benefit from antibiotics.

A sore throat with enlarged, red tonsils may be a bacterial tonsillitis, which needs antibiotics. Ear pain or discharge may indicate a viral or bacterial ear infection and may benefit from antibiotics. 

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