While bacteria and viruses can both cause mild to serious infections, they are different from each other. This is important to understand, because bacterial and viral infections must be treated differently. Misusing antibiotics to treat viral infections contributes to the problem of antibiotic resistance.

What’s the difference?

Bacteria are tiny microorganisms that are made up of a single cell. 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.

Viruses are another type of tiny microorganism, although it causes common infections as bacteria. 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.

Which infections are treated with antibiotics?

Antibiotics are medications used to treat bacterial infections. There are many types of antibiotics, but they all work to prevent bacteria from effectively growing and multiplying. They’re not effective against viral infections.

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.

How are viral infections treated?

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

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

How to prevent infections?

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