Viruses vs. Bacteria: the Bug Battle Is On

With Season Changing, Local Doctor Urges You To Be Armed To Fight Illness

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With the kids back in school and cooler weather setting in, we’ll soon be rolling up our sleeves to get those flu shots, and we’ll soon be battling the bugs and bacteria that the kids pick up at school.

The best defense is a strong offense. First, though, you need to know your enemies -- viruses and bacteria -- and how they attack.

While many of us confuse the two, viruses and bacteria are completely different animals.

“The big difference is microscopic, so you can’t really tell the difference straight off the bat,” said Dr. Jackie Eghrari-Sabet of Family Allergy & Asthma Care in Gaithersburg, Md.

“Viruses, (like colds or flu), you get by being up close and personal. Somebody’s got to sneeze on you, cough on you, or shake your hand. Bacteria, (like MRSA or staph), can survive on hard surfaces, your cell phone, door knobs…for hours or days at a time, so how you get them is different, and in the end, they are treated differently,” Dr. Jackie said.

These days, at the first sign of a cough, stuffy nose or sniffles, a lot of us reach for antibiotics. That’s practicing bad medicine, according to Dr. Jackie. “Don’t insist to your doctor that you’ve got to have antibiotics if in fact what you have is a virus. That’s how you end up making resistant bugs,” she said.

  • Dr. Jackie offers a few basic rules of thumb.
  • For a sore throat, only get antibiotics if you get a “positive” strep test.
  • If your doctor does prescribe antibiotics, make sure they’re no stronger than you need. (If you think you’re allergic to penicillin, there’s an easy test that will confirm that).
  • If you have a stuffy, runny nose, first try a few days on chicken soup and a nasal rinse. Bacterial infections generally take about a week to develop. Also, most tummy bugs (with nausea and vomiting) are viral. Antibiotics won’t help and can actually give you a worse GI infection that may be difficult to treat.

To fight off bugs before they attack, she says get a flu shot. If you’re over age 50, you can also get a pneumonia shot (a bacterial vaccine).

If you’re already sick, Dr. Jackie recommends lots of water (sans alcohol and caffeine). Drink it and use a sinus rinse. Yogurt will help you fight tummy bugs, especially if you’re taking antibiotics; and finally, says Dr. Jackie, “if you’re sick, don’t go to work. Go to sleep if you want to quickly get back on your feet!”

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