What is the difference between a bacterial infection and a viral infection in Kingston, New York?

What is the difference between a bacterial infection and a viral infection?

The difference between a bacterial infection and a viral infection can make the difference between a life threatening condition and a harmless one, so you might want to read on.

Bacterial infections are caused by bacteria and viral infections are caused by viruses. Okay, simple enough.  Some ailments, such as pneumonia, meningitis and diarrhea, can be caused by either type of pathogen (dangerous microscopic organisms). 

Viral illnesses may cause body aches and fever, but usually run their course in 7-10 days (with the notable exceptions of AID/HIV and hepatitis).  Diseases that result from viruses include influenza, chickenpox, AIDS and the common cold.

With two exceptions (AIDS/HIV and hepatitis), more serious concerns are bacterial illnesses like sepsis (bacteria in the blood), bacterial meningitis (bacterial infection in the lining of the brain and spinal cord), bacterial endocarditis (bacteria in the lining of the heart), brain abscess (a pus collection within the brain) and necrotizing fasciitis (flesh-eating bacteria).  Other examples of infections caused by bacteria include strep throat, tuberculosis and urinary tract infections.

Bacteria are actually useful to the body as well; only about 10% of the bacteria cause harm to the human body.  You have millions of bacteria in our intestines and they help digest foods, but they are harmful once they get into the bloodstream. The job of your immune system is to protect your body from these infections.

Why you need to know the difference between a bacterial infection and a viral infection?

You must find out whether you have a bacterial infection or a viral infection in order to determine the treatment for your infection.  Antibiotic drugs usually kill bacteria, but they have no effect upon viral infections such as colds or the flu.  Antibiotics are chemicals that kill the bacteria cells. 

If you have a viral infection, you need to drink a lot of fluids and rest until the virus runs its course over 7-10 days.  There are no medicines that you can take for most viruses. On the other hand, if you have a bacterial infection, you need to determine the type of bacterial in order to get the right antibiotic to kill the bacteria.  Each bacteria requires a specific kind of antibiotic medicine, so you must determine the kind of bacteria that you have.

How you can tell whether you have a bacterial infection or a viral infection

White blood cells serve the sole job of killing infections (not a bad gig if you can get it).  A normal white blood cell count is in the range of 4,000 to 11,000 cells per liter of blood.  If you have an elevated white blood cell count (anything above 11,000), it's a good bet you have an infection.  The next step is to determine what type of infection you have: bacterial or viral (no guessing allowed).

A simple and very informative test is the white blood cell "differential", which is run as part of a Complete Blood Count. The white blood cell "differential" will usually tell you whether you have a bacterial infection or a viral infection.

This is how the white blood cell differential works: there are different types of white blood cells in your body.  The five types of white blood cells, also called leukocytes, appear in the blood: Neutrophils, Lymphocytes (B cells and T cells), Monocytes, Eosinophils, and Basophils.  The white blood cell differential shows if the number of cells are in proper proportion to one another, and if there is more or less of one cell type. A computer counts the number of each type of cell. 

Neutrophils are by far the most common form of white blood cell that you have in your body (pus is simply dead neutrophils).  Neutrophils are infection fighters that increase during bacterial infections (neutrophils are also known as granulocytes (grans), polys, PMNs, or segs). Lymphocytes, on the other hand, can increase in cases of viral infections.

The normal results of a white blood cell differential are: Neutrophils 40% to 60%; Lymphocytes: 20% to 40%; Monocytes: 2% to 8%; Eosinophils: 1% to 4%; Basophils; 0.5% to 1%; Band (young neutrophil): 0% to 3%.

An increase on one type of white blood cell can cause a decrease in other types of white blood cells.  For example, if you have a bacterial infection, you will have an increase neutrophils and a decrease in lymphocytes.  Conversely, if you have a viral infection, you will have a decrease in neutrophils and an increase in lymphocytes.

Let's say you have abnormally elevated levels of neutrophils (e.g., 80%) and low levels of lymphocytes (e.g., 10%), this is a strong indication that you have a bacterial infection.  On the other hand, if you have low levels of neutrophils (30%) and high levels of lymphocytes (60%), this is a sign that you have a viral infection.  You should ask your doctor about your white blood cell differential, as it may tell you whether you have a bacterial infection or a viral infection.


What you can do if you want more information about infections

If you have questions or want more information about infections, I welcome your phone call on my toll-free cell at 1-866-889-6882 or you can send me an e-mail at [email protected] .  You can always join my e-mail list for weekly tips about medical malpractice by providing your name and e-mail address in the opt-in box on the home page of my website at www.protectingpatientrights.com.