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Knowing the difference: viral or bacterial infection?

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By: Pani Shoja, MD
Medical Director – Urgent Care Hawaii

Pani Shoja, MD

At our Urgent Care Hawaii clinics, we are seeing more viral and bacterial infections – sore throats, strep throat, sinus infections, bronchitis, ear infections, UTIs and even flu.

Viral and bacterial upper respiratory infections may be present in similar ways. Some viral and bacterial infections are highly contagious and are spread by:

• Coughing and sneezing
• Contact with infected people
• Contact with contaminated surfaces, food and water

Both infections can cause similar symptoms such as coughing and sneezing, fever, inflammation, vomiting, diarrhea, fatigue, aches and pains, and cramping.

Antibiotics may be effective for bacterial infections but are not for viral infections. There is also the risk of overuse of antibiotics which may lead to antibiotic-resistant strains. Testing and evaluation is the only way to know what kind of infection you have for sure. (Ask your physician if the antibiotic is really the right choice for your type of infection.)

Length of illness

In general, viral infections are milder than bacterial infections, but they tend to last longer. You may feel very sick for one to seven days, and then start to feel better, though symptoms may linger. Remember that viruses can morph into things like sinus infections or increase the risk of middle ear infections, which may result in developing a bacterial infection.

Color of mucus

Contrary to popular belief, the color of your mucus does not tell us much about the type of infection you have.

Check your throat

Certain types of sore throats can indicate a bacterial infection such as inflamed lymph nodes or a ‘strawberry tongue’. A sore throat with no other symptoms may even be a bacterial infection such as strep throat.

Is there a fever?

Fevers can be present with both viral and bacterial infections. A fever is a temperature over 100.4 degrees. Anything below this, regardless of your ‘normal’ temperature, is not considered a fever in healthy adults.

Could it be the flu?

The flu is highly contagious and is caused by a viral infection. Remember that there are treatment options for the flu if your symptoms started within two days of being diagnosed for high-risk patients. Make sure you talk to your doctor about getting the flu shot every year. Contact your doctor or go to Urgent Care Hawaii.

What about sinus infections?

If you recently had a viral infection such as a sinus infection, you may have developed a secondary bacterial infection. You should be immediately evaluated by a doctor. See your doctor or come to Urgent Care Hawaii if you have certain symptoms: (It is especially important that these symptoms are addressed in children.)

• Urinating less than three times in 24 hours
• Difficulty breathing
• No improvement in three days
• Worsening of symptoms – severe symptoms

The only way to know for sure if you have a viral or bacterial infection is to get evaluated and discuss options with your doctor. If you are experiencing pain, ask your doctor which over-the-counter pain medications may help.

Helpful Tips:

• Drink at least 8 glasses of water a day.
• Try fresh vegetable juices.
• Eat a fresh foods diet.
• Avoid foods such as sugars, refined foods, caffeine, colas, tobacco and alcohol.
• Get more sleep.
• Wash your hands often with soap and water.

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