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Viruses vs. bacterial respiratory infections

blog picture 9 17 2021

As we make our way into the fall and winter months, also known as the “flu season,” it is important to understand the differences between viral and bacterial respiratory infections.

The common cold, influenza, and coronavirus are all caused by viruses, not bacteria. Therefore, antibiotics do not work for these viral illnesses. Furthermore, taking antibiotics for viruses can actually increase your risk for resistance to antibiotics, meaning that antibiotics can eventually lose their effectiveness to treat certain bacterial infections.

Viruses can cause cough, runny nose, sore throat and fever. The course of viral respiratory infections typically look like this:

  • Day 1: mild onset of symptoms
  • Day 2: peak of fever and sore throat, can last up to 1 week
  • Day 4: peak of cough and runny nose, can last up to 2 weeks
  • 1-2 weeks: gradual decline and resolution of symptoms

Call your primary care doctor if your symptoms do not follow this pattern or persist beyond 2 weeks. Infections that continue over 2 weeks could have developed into a bacterial infection, and then would benefit from an antibiotic.

It is important to also call your primary care or emergency services with any chest pain, shortness of breath, and fever over 102 degrees Fahrenheit.

All viruses are contagious and it is important to avoid contact with others if you are ill. Additionally, frequent hand washing, wearing a mask, and cleaning of shared surfaces should be done to avoid transmission.

Drinking plenty of fluids and 2000 mg of Vitamin C daily can be helpful in recovering from a viral infection. Keep in mind that a bit of a fever helps your body destroy the virus. I don’t usually recommend anti-inflammatories or aspirin for fever less than 102 degrees Fahrenheit unless you’re having difficulty sleeping due to aches and pains.

When in doubt, call your doctor’s office with any questions or concerns. There are many similarities between the common cold, influenza, and COVID-19. COVID-19 can also cause fatigue, muscle aches, headache, loss of taste or smell, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. It is best to get a COVID test at a local testing center before assuming that it is a common cold.


  • Dr. Mike

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