Understanding the difference between a virus and bacteria

Understanding the difference between a virus and bacteria

Viruses require a living entity in order to reproduce, injecting their genetic material into a living cell, hijacking that cell to make the cell work for them.


MRSA, VRE, ESBL and fluorquinolones?


The world of bacteria and viruses can be a maddening game of ABCs that is difficult to fathom, and for many people today, as the COVID-19 virus continues to rear its ugly head in the world, the solution to treating either bacteria or viruses may be to attack either with antibiotics.

That may work on bacterial issues, but on viral issues, it can cause more harm than good. Thus, understanding the difference between the two becomes paramount, and sometimes a physician prescribing plenty of rest, fluids and time is the best answer.

“It’s important for folks to understand that bacteria and viruses are very different,” said Dr. D.J. McFadden, MD MPH at Community Hospice in New Philadelphia and also served as the Holmes County health commissioner for a decade. “Bacteria are living organisms that can reproduce on their own while viruses require a living entity in order to reproduce, injecting their genetic material into a living cell, hijacking that cell and making the cell work for them. A virus can’t replicate without putting its genetic material into a living cell, forcing that cell to use that genetic material as a blueprint to make more virus cells. That is the only way a virus does what it does.”

McFadden said as a result the infections are different, and the treatments are a bit different.

Because bacteria are alive, there is a need to kill them. Because viruses aren’t necessarily alive, unless there is a vaccine in which the antibodies attack the infected cells hosting the virus, there needs to be antivirals that somehow prevent any given virus from taking over a cell and spreading.

Defining the difference between the two is critical in the way we treat each.

According to the American Medical Association, less than 1% of bacteria cause disease, and most are beneficial for good health and the health of Earth’s ecosystems; however, most viruses cause disease.

In addition, antibiotics may be used to treat some bacterial infections, but they do not work against viruses. Some severe bacterial infections may be prevented by vaccination. Vaccination is the primary way to prevent viral infections; however, antivirals have been engineered that can treat some viral infections such as Hepatitis C or HIV. Antivirals are not effective against bacteria.

McFadden said denoting the differences is important because people will often go to the doctor’s office with a cold or viral infection seeking antibiotics. While bacteria can be easily treated with antibiotics, viral issues need what McFadden called the tincture of time, meaning the patient must give themselves and their body and the infected cells time to improve.

While some may see taking an antibiotic for a viral infection as being a “just in case” type of option, McFadden said there are pitfalls to that thinking, and issues can arise that can be detrimental to a patient suffering from a viral infection.

“The reason it becomes critical is that when we overuse antibiotics, we are exposing bacteria to the antibiotic in such a way that we can start to select out bacteria that are resistant,” McFadden said. “When we improperly use antibiotics, whether they are prescribed for a viral infection or people simply don’t continue their whole regimen of antibiotics, which is quite common to see people discontinuing their prescription because they feel better, we select out resistant bacteria and end up putting pressure on the bacteria to develop resistance so we can get some to have a little resistance. As that happens over time, we develop more and more bacteria that become resistant to antibiotics.”

McFadden said every cell has the potential to mutate, and bacterial cells are replicating at a fast rate. That is why someone can be swabbed and plated and in 12 hours there is enough duplication of a single cell that there is now a heaped-up pile of cells.

When cells are duplicating that quickly, there are going to be mutations that occur, some that are detrimental to the body and kill cells while others that are helpful and do good work on cells. McFadden said the advantages can’t be exploited until pressure is applied.

“We tend to think that for any advantage a mutation presents, there is some disadvantage,” McFadden said. “So a bacteria may have some resistance to, say, methicillin, but it may not be able to use energy as quickly as others, so it won’t compete with other bacteria very well.”

Thus, in a natural world without any competition, that mutation will not succeed. It will always be outcompeted by other bacteria and defeated.

However, when pressure is unnecessarily added, in this case methicillin, the mutant bacteria that was once methicillin-resistant is given an advantage and begins to duplicate quickly and spread to other cells, which is why McFadden said prescribing antibiotics to a virus can cause more harm than good.

The human body will often correct itself with proteins designed to go through the body and clip out genetic errors. Sometimes viruses can take over and change how these proteins react in the body, and the changes lead to the virus not being as potent or becoming more deadly, as is the case of COVID-19. The big jumps in a virus can result in situations like the current pandemic or the flu in 1918.

McFadden said the nation has allowed the virus to pass through more and more people, and with every spread of the COVID-19 virus, it has a better chance to mutate.

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