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Bacterial vs viral infections: How to differentiate?

Summary: Got the flu? Gulf News speaks to experts to help you understand what you're suffering from

Image Credit: By Rabab Khan, Community Interactivity Editor

Dubai: Fever, headache, body ache, cough and a runny nose. You might just have the flu - but, is it viral or bacterial? Do you need to see a doctor immediately?

According to Dr Mohammad Alazzawi , head of the emergency department at Mediclinic Welcare Hospital in Dubai, it all depends on your prior medical conditions.

He said: "If you are a healthy, young adult, you can wait if you experience symptoms of a common cold or the flu for at least five days. Things like a simple fever, runny nose and mild throat pain are some signs. You can take paracetamol or other medication from a pharmacy. But, the warning sign is if you have difficulty breathing,chest pain or if you have any chronic medical conditions or are below the age of five years or you are pregnant or with recent travel history,In these cases, visit the hospital immediately."

Dr Sana Kauser , family medicine consultant at King's College Hospital in Dubai, agrees. She advices her patients that there is no need to rush in straight away to see a doctor, unless they feel "really unwell".

She said: "You can take medication for the fever, such as paracetamol, and try remedies, like honey and lemon tea, for the throat and rest. A day or two later, it will usually subside and most people would go back to normal. But, it is different depending on your age and if you have a chronic illness. Also, if your temperature isn't going down and you are coughing phlegm or are unable to swallow, these symptoms are much more severe. This is when it is time to go see a general practitioner (GP) or someone with family medicine."

The doctor would typically check your tonsils and also conduct a throat swab test. They want to ensure if you need antibiotics or not. Unless it is a bacterial infection, the doctor will not prescribe any antibiotics to the patient. "It is like taking clorox, you are killing all the good bacteria too, and they are important in helping us stay healthy," says Dr Kauser when talking about antibiotics for a viral infection.

Bacterial vs viral

What is the difference between a bacterial and viral infection? The most simple way to explain it would be that bacterial infections are caused by bacteria, while viral infections are caused by viruses. But, to break it down further, the most important distinction between bacteria and viruses is that antibiotic drugs usually kill bacteria, but they aren't effective against viruses, as stated by the Mayo Clinic, a US-based nonprofit academic medical centre.

Dr Alazzawi explains: "We ask the patients some questions about their condition. There are a set of criteria that are used to identify the likelihood of a bacterial infection. These include white spots on the throat and fever,no cough and painful neck nodes swelling.Or sometimes by doing throat swab test to identify the bacteria."

According to him, antibiotics do not treat viral infections. Once an individual contracts one, he or she has to wait for the cycle to finish. Simple medication that offers symptomatic relief can be purchased to ease the process. In case of a viral infection, the life cycle of the bug is three to ten days.

So, if you bought antibiotics from a pharmacy after the first symptoms appeared without knowing their source, the medication might not even work. It is important for you to know what type of infection you are suffering from to be able to get the proper medication. Results from a throat swab can decipher whether a person has contracted a viral or bacterial infection, because the symptoms could be similar.

Dr Alazzawi said: "You would respond to the antibiotics within 24-48 hours if it is a bacterial infection. But, it is recommended to not take antibiotics; it should be given only after visiting a healthcare professional."

Recovery time

With a viral flu, a patient could be in bed for up to a week, as stated by Dr Kauser. And the body temperature rises as its way of killing the virus.

She said: "With a bacterial infection, once you get the antibiotics, it will go away faster. But, it could take up to two weeks for a serious one. With a viral, it depends on the case. A mild case of the common cold could take a couple of days. With the viral flu, you could be in bed all week."

Symptoms

The Mayo Clinic highlights the most common symptoms of the flu, that set it apart from the common cold. While the colds develops slowly, the flu tends to come on suddenly. Those affected could experience:

* Fever over 38C

* Aching muscles

* Chills and sweats

* Headache

* Dry, persistent cough

* Fatigue and weakness

* Nasal congestion

* Sore throat

However, as far as bacterial and viral infections are concerned, telling them apart can be difficult for an individual.

Dr Kauser said: "You probably may not be able to tell them apart. A doctor should be able to tell the difference based on experience. But, only tests can guarantee it. A blood test is also a good way to differentiate. The type of blood cells that increase are different in both cases."

Some people might experience loss of taste when they contract the flu. However, this has nothing to do with the infection, as stated by Dr Kauser.

She explains: "Your nose is blocked and we don't realise that the senses are connected. When you are eating something, you use your sense of taste, smell and sight. So, it is not a direct impact on the taste buds."

The Mayo Clinic, on their official website, state a similar diagnosis.

In one of their reports, it reads: "The sensations of taste and smell are related, so many disorders of the sense of taste are associated with a decreased or impaired sense of smell."

However, Dr Alazzawi elaborates on the same subject by adding that a patient's sense of taste and smell could be affected because the patient's "throat and tongue are inflamed".

He said: "The sense of taste is connected to throat and tongue. And sense of smell to the nose. All of these are affected in a patient with an infection."

Prevention

The US-based Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends annual flu vaccination for everyone age six months or older.

Dr Kauser said: "As flu can be serious, it is recommended to have a flu vaccination, which is developed every year according to the rapidly changing flu virus. This makes the flu less severe, if you do happen to catch it."

However, the vaccine isn't 100 per cent effective, so they recommend that during the times or season when the viral flu is prevalent, people should regularly wash their hands and avoid crowds.

If you are affected, try to contain your coughs and sneezes by covering your mouth with a tissue.

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Publication:Gulf News (United Arab Emirates)
Date:Oct 4, 2018
Words:1191
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