Healthy Tips

The Truth About Viruses and Bacteria

Debunking common myths about the causes of your cold

Truth: There is a difference, and your physician will treat the two very differently.

Bacteria are small, single-celled microorganisms that reproduce by themselves and can survive in all sorts of environments, from extreme heat and cold temperatures, to radioactive waste and of course, your body. Most bacteria aren’t harmful to people, but can cause illnesses such as strep throat or urinary tract infections.

A virus, on the other hand, needs a living host to multiply and survive, and can only reproduce by attaching to other cells to make new viruses. Chickenpox, AIDS and common colds are all caused by viruses.

Certain ailments such as diarrhea, meningitis and pneumonia can be caused by either bacteria or a virus, making it difficult to pinpoint the cause. Your physician may request a culture test, blood sample or urine test to confirm a diagnosis.

Myth: Antibiotics can cure both bacterial infections and viruses

Truth: Antibiotics do not fight infections caused by viruses. Some home remedies may give you temporary relief, but your best bet is to hide under the covers, sleep and get plenty of fluids.

Your physician may prescribe antibiotics for bacterial infections; however, antibiotics can cause side effects, and overusing or misusing antibiotics can cause your body to become resistant over time, which means those antibiotics may not work for you in the future. Every year, millions of unnecessary prescriptions are written for antibiotics in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Carefully weigh your options and be aware of any potential side effects before taking antibiotics.

Myth: Cold is the same thing as the flu

Truth: While there are many similarities, the primary difference between a cold and the flu is the severity. Learn the distinction between the two here.

Myth: If you don’t have symptoms, you’re not contagious

Truth: With many illnesses, you’re contagious before the symptoms begin to show — and then, you’re still contagious even after you start to feel better.

Flu: Contagious one day before the symptoms begin to show, and for five to seven days after you get sick with the symptoms Stomach virus: Contagious before the symptoms start until up to two weeks after symptoms go away

Strep throat: No longer contagious 24 hours after starting to take antibiotics; without antibiotics, strep throat can be contagious for two or three weeks

Common cold: Contagious one to two days before symptoms start, and can be transmitted for up to two weeks after being ill

Myth: You can’t prevent the spread of viruses

Truth: Handwashing is one of the simplest and most effective ways to prevent the spread of viruses. Be sure to use warm water and soap, and wash for at least 15 to 20 seconds (the amount of time it takes to sing one verse of “Happy Birthday”). Other ways to prevent the spread of viruses include sneezing or coughing into your elbow (not your hands), and wearing a respiratory mask if you’re ill, especially if you’re around high-risk populations like elderly people, young children or people with compromised immune systems.