Drug resistant superbugs – part 3

This post is the third in a series on Drug Resistant Superbugs.

With respiratory or gastrointestinal infections, you may have questioned the need to see a doctor. How can you tell if an infection is viral or bacterial? Knowing is key to getting the right treatment. When physicians are unsure, they carry out chest x-rays and culture tests of blood, urine or body fluids. At home, what can you do when unsure?

How to tell the difference between bacterial and viral infections

Distinguishing one infection from the other is not always straightforward. Both infections, bacterial and viral, have similar symptoms such as fever, diarrhea, coughing, sneezing, inflammation, vomiting, fatigue, malaise and chills. In addition, the origin of some ailments can be unclear, for example, pneumonia, bronchitis and meningitis can be either bacterial or viral. When in doubt, always contact your health care professional.

Here are some basic differences you can look for:

Bacterial infections

  • Usually localized or in a single point in the body.
  • Fever (over 38°C).
  • Green, yellow or rust colour discharge or mucus.
  • Heat, redness, swelling and pain in a specific body part.
  • Strep. throat.
  • Urinary tract infections.
  • Most ear infections.
  • Some sinus infections.

Viral infections

  • Usually involves more than one body part at the same time.
  • Low-grade fever (less than 38°C).
  • Clear discharge.
  • All colds: runny noses, coughs and sore throats.
  • All flus: influenza infections that cause muscle aches, body aches, headaches.
  • Can be local: conjunctivitis and herpes that cause burning or itching.

What to do

Try to identify the event that led to the infection and keep an eye on symptoms. Both infections, bacterial and viral, are spread the same ways:

  • Coughing and sneezing.
  • Contact with infected people through touch, kissing and sex.
  • Crowded and closed-in rooms.
  • Contaminated surfaces or objects.
  • Contaminated foods and water.
  • Contact with infected animals or insects such as mosquitoes or ticks.

Should symptoms persist beyond a few days and there is no improvement, consult a doctor. This is particularly important with infants and toddlers, pregnant women and people with weak immune systems.

Treatment for viruses

Flu viruses can be prevented with flu vaccines.Vaccines also reduce the outbreaks of viral diseases, such as polio, measles and chickenpox. They can also prevent viral infections such hepatitis A & B and human papilloma virus (HPV).

Antiviral drugs are prescription medications used to cure or control viruses such as herpes simplex, HIV/AIDS and influenza. Like bacteria, viruses can mutate and develop resistance to antiviral drugs. Antiviral drugs do not treat colds; antibiotics only treat bacterial infections. For common colds and flus, the best cure is to stay home, drink fluids and find ways to relieve symptoms.

Secondary infections

What starts out as a viral infection can turn into a bacterial one. This happens when a virus weakens your immune system and you become susceptible to bacteria. For example, a runny nose that persists beyond 10-14 days can turn into a sinus infection. Sinusitis, ear infections and pneumonias are secondary infections. With bacterial infections, limit the use of antibiotics to infections that won’t get better on their own.

Prevention tips

Consuming foods which contain probiotic bacteria can help stop the growth of disease-causing bacteria. Probiotics are healthy bacteria found in yoghurt, kefir, sauerkraut and soft cheese like quark or cottage cheese.

Selenium, a trace mineral found in foods or supplements, can help boost your immune system and fight off infections. Foods such as lean meats, tuna, cod, whole grains, Brazil nuts or eggs contain selenium. High doses of selenium can cause health problems. For information on selenium, talk to your pharmacist or dietician.

Vitamin D from sun exposure is more beneficial than elevating your vitamin D level with supplements. The “sunshine vitamin” can help strengthen your immune system. When the sun is out, soak up a few rays.

Rinsing your mouth with antibacterial mouthwash (e.g. Listerine) and washing your hands with antibacterial soap can help reduce harmful bacteria. In public washrooms, the faucets and door handles are more heavily contaminated than the toilet seats. After using these, wash your hands for at least 20 seconds and after drying your hands, use the paper towel to turn off the faucet or turn the door handle.

In the kitchen, vegetables and meats should be stored separately and prepared on separate chopping boards. Chopping boards and other kitchen devices used for handling raw meat should be disinfected after each use. Meat should preferably be served well-done.

Finally, the use of condoms during intercourse reduces the likelihood of spreading sexually transmitted diseases.

Photo Courtesy of: Allan Foster
Julie Zimmer

Julie has extensive experience in nursing practice and education in a wide range of fields from intensive/coronary care, to medical-surgical to community and public health. Julie has Bachelor Degrees in Psychology and Nursing, and a Master’s Degree in Community Health Nursing Education. She has taught in faculties of nursing and in various communities in Toronto, Canada and in Geneva, Switzerland, and is a consultant to the International Council of Nurses (ICN). Julie also has years of experience teaching English as a foreign language (EFL) in addition to coordinating an English department in a Swiss private school.

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