Is It A Viral Or A Bacterial Infection? Top Clues For Parents

At this time of year, winter bugs and lurgies can really take their toll on our little ones’ immune systems, not to mention our own too. We all want our kids to get better quickly, so it is important to learn how to identify what is causing the illness especially if things come on quickly… and this starts from working out if they have a virus or a bacterial infection. You can then take action and find the best home remedies to give them.

The NHS generally advises that you do not take your child to your GP unless they are very young, have an extremely high fever or if symptoms have persisted for more than 10 days. However with children you always need to be extra cautious so a visit to your GP is important if you are concerned. 

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What Is A Virus?
Viral infections include the flu, the common cold, slapped cheek and chicken pox. Viruses require living hosts such as plants, humans or animals to survive. They thrive by finding a host cell to infect and take over the enzymes of that cell (such as the cells that line the respiratory tracts in the case of cold or flu), making copies of itself (the viral cell) so it can reproduce and grow. Viral infections are often spread via contact touching a surface, human touch, coughing, sneezing and contact with infected water, animals, and food. Generally, when a person has a virus, more than one part of the body is affected, with two or more of the following symptoms: sore throat, runny nose, headache, hoarseness, cough, cold symptoms, sneezing, fever, muscle aches, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhoea.

Did You Know?
Antibiotics cannot kill a virus and antiviral medicines can only inhibit its growth. Medical antivirals are available but they are very rarely prescribed (not even for viral meningitis!). Often, the best course of action is to let the virus run its course, and treat and manage the symptoms with natural antiviral herbs such as elderberry and monolaurin, resting and keeping fluid levels up.

What Is A Bacterial Infection?
Bacterial infections include strep throat, whooping cough, urinary tract infections, and impetigo. These are caused by single bacterial cells known as microorganisms that exist everywhere, in the air, plants, animals, and surfaces. These microorganisms can thrive in extreme heat or cold and often cause no long-term harm. In fact, most bacterial cells are harmless and lots are actually good for us. Bacterial cells are so numerous, they outnumber regular cells in the human body. The beneficial bacteria in our guts play an essential role in our overall health, wellbeing, and happiness.

In some cases, bacterial infections need to be treated with antibiotics, but GPs are being more cautious at prescribing these nowadays, as inappropriate and unnecessary use has led to the creation of bacterial diseases that are resistant to treatment, such as the powerful MRSA bacterium and clostridium difficile. Antibiotics also kill bacteria indiscriminately, and the unnecessary loss of beneficial bacteria in our microbiome, especially in the gut, can create longer-term health issues and be detrimental to our happiness and mental health. Tip: always give your child probiotics for at least 6 weeks after a course of antibiotics. If your GP is not keen to prescribe antibiotics, then stock up on probiotics, garlic and ginger as well as Jarrah honey to help your immune system fight the infection more efficiently.

When you or your child has a bacterial infection, it usually affects one part of the body only and may or may not be accompanied by fever. So, if your child only has an earache then it is probably bacterial; if they have an ear ache and a cough then it could be a viral infection.

Is It Possible To Have Both?
It is possible to for your child to have both a viral and bacterial infection (or more than one bacterial infection) at the same time, which can lead to more severe infections which can potentially escalate to sepsis, pneumonia or meningitis. Sometimes, it might start with a virus but then you get a bacterial infection on top of this. Signs of this are usually multiple symptoms for a few days, that suddenly getting much worse. Or your child’s health might have been improving but suddenly gets worse again.

This is because a viral infection specifically increases the Nod1 and Nod2 response to the secondary bacterial infection (think of these as messengers alerting your body that there is another infection and this triggers inflammation), leading to a more extreme immune response. Sepsis is thought to be more likely if a person has gut permeability (AKA Leaky Gut)  at the time of the illness, so this is an extra reason to have probiotics on call, as well as ensuring your kids eat plenty of gut healing foods such as chicken stock, yoghurt and kefir on an ongoing basis.

Top Clues
  • If your child has a sore throat and it is red it is probably a virus, but if there are white patches on the tonsils then it’s likely to be bacterial.
  • Clear, grey or white mucous are often indications of a viral infection whilst yellow or green mucous is usually signs of a bacterial infection.
  • A high fever (102°f / 38.89°c) for only 1 or 2 days is usually indicative of viral infection, whilst a high fever for more than 2 days often can mean the infection is bacterial.
  • A low fever (100°f / 37.78°c) for up to 4 days is probably indicative of viral infection but if it continues for longer than 4 days it might well be a bacterial infection.

Disclaimer: We are not medical doctors and this post should not be seen as providing medical advice. If you are concerned about your child’s health then please visit your GP or call NHS 111.

Originally published Jan 9, 2018

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