During the height of winter, it is common for patients to seek out treatment for troublesome symptoms such as sore throats and runny noses. Because of this, it is important to recognize the difference in bacterial and viral infections in the primary care setting. Antibiotics are medications that are used to treat bacterial infections. They are not effective against viral infections. Based on symptoms and test results, a viral infection may be distinguished from a bacterial infection.
Viral infections are caused by common viruses such as influenza, the common cold, or respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). Viral infections cannot be cured with antibiotics, as viruses are different from bacteria and antibiotics do not work on them. Instead, viral infections must run their course and the body’s own immune system will typically clear the virus on its own.
While antibiotics do not treat viral infections, there are other treatments that can help alleviate viral symptoms and make patients feel more comfortable. These can include over-the-counter pain relievers, decongestants, and hydration. In severe cases, antiviral medications may be prescribed to help reduce the severity and duration of the illness.
Taking antibiotics when they are not needed can actually do more harm than good. Overuse of antibiotics can lead to antibiotic resistance, which means the antibiotics will become less effective in the future when they are needed to treat bacterial infections.
Charlie Wright, Pharm.D., BCPS