The differences between bacteria and viruses
One of the most commonly incorrect ways antibiotics are used is in the treatment of viruses. Unlike bacteria, viruses are not alive they are simply stands of DNA or RNA with a protein coating. Bacteria, on the other hand, are living complex organisms that consist of a single cell, which can split into two when needed creating new bacteria. Viruses cannot reproduce in this way, they need a host cell which they essentially take hostage using the host cells genetic machinery to produce more viruses. To do this viruses will burrow deep inside of cells, into the nucleus where the DNA is kept, they will then use the machinery that repairs and creates new DNA to make new copies of themselves. Conversely, bacteria cannot enter cells, they attack by releasing toxins which damage the cell walls.
Issues with diagnosis
The one thing both of these microbes have in common is that they both cause illness when infecting humans. This illness we feel is often our immune systems fighting off the infections and this immune response will often be similar regardless of whether its attacking a viral or bacterial infection. We experience coughing, sneezing, fatigue, fever, inflammation and cramping in response to both microbial infections and this is where the mistakes are made. To accurately diagnose a microbial infection doctors, in addition to the traditional physical tests, will have to perform microbial specific tests involving urine or blood samples. As these additional tests take time to carry out and be analysed, doctors often prescribe general antibiotics to begin with, just to catch a bacterial infection in its early stages (if it is indeed one).
But of course this is useless if the patient is suffering from a viral infection as antibiotics DO NOT kill viruses!
Viral infections, such as colds and the flu, must be treated with antiviral medications NOT antibiotics, the cell-wall-puncturing method that antibiotics often use to kill bacteria is obviously ineffective against a microbe without a cell wall! So it all comes back to diagnosis, if a doctor can more easily determine a bacterial infection from a viral infection then they can more easily avoid having to over prescribe antibiotics ‘just to be safe’. Of doctors could just tell us to take a few days off work and let our immune systems handle it, but in today’s work obsessed world that seems increasingly unlikely…
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