Vicious bacterium, terrible virus. At this time of year there are very few people who have not gone yet through the first knee bending cold, or a flue. Not to mention the bug incubator popularly called nursery or kindergarten…
I bet you remember that there is a difference between a viral and a bacterial infection. However I think it is good to run a short summary, because in coming weeks you might see quite a few stories in press due to a few health awareness campaigns. And anyway, we will be facing the same decisions, like we do every year, with our little people at home: insist on antibiotics or not.
OK, so let’s go back to the start.
Bacterium is a microbe, a very small living organism. Virus is an infectious agent, a tiny parcel with a very precise instruction, wrapped in a well designed capsule. And here is the most important difference: a bacterium is alive, virus is not. Why does it matter? Because if we want to get rid of them, we need completely different tools.
They both can cause very similar symptoms when infecting: the usual coughs and sneezes, fever, vomiting and other favorites. However they act in a completely different way. Bacteria simply move in, they squat in our body, find a nice, cozy place and multiply. A virus cannot do anything by itself. It needs our cells to do the job. The content of the parcel needs to be delivered into a cell of our own body and plug in the viral set of instructions into our own. This way our cell starts running a different program and eventually produces more viruses.
So if we want to stop bacteria from multiplying, we need to stop a living thing. If you want to stop a virus you need to stop the parcel from messing around with our cells. Fortunately for us for most infections both bacterial and viral we have an amazing defense system. That so annoying inflammation is actually our body fighting the infection.
The most powerful weapon against bacteria are good old antibiotics. The best weapon against viruses are… vaccinations. Unfortunately once infected by a virus usually there is not that much that we can do apart from helping our body fight the thing. Of course there are a lot of sophisticated antiviral treatments for more damaging types i.e. Hep C etc. but unfortunately they do not always work, they have massive side effects and tend to be very expensive.
But lets go back to our winter colds. How do we know that it is a viral or a bacterial infection? Well, we can’t know for sure. The tendency is that a viral infection has a more acute course: hits immediately and the (usually high) fever lasts no longer than 3 days. If you give an antibiotic while there is virus having a party, not only it does not help, but our body gets a bit of a shock: you get rid of the good bacteria that help our digestive system. What if you have a bacterial infection? Would antibiotics work? Well, USUALLY yes, if the right antibiotic is prescribed to the type of infection and the bug is not resistant to it. But aren’t we using a sledge hammer to crack a nut a little bit too often…
Where am I going with this? Most of the time our body can manage. It will get a little bit heated up in the fight, but it does come out winning at the other end. And the more we let it fight the stronger it gets. If we are too quick giving it a helping (antibiotic) hand, we deprive it of the chance to have a go. In consequence we do abuse the drugs far too much. And unfortunately it has consequences on us and bacteria. We get weaker and bacteria get stronger. So lets’ give our body the chance to win it’s battles. Fortunately for us, most bacteria and viruses will be happy just with the fact they have managed to infect us and multiply. Quite content, they move on to another happy winner…
Antibiotic resistance, till next time 😉