Viruses produce viral infections, while bacteria cause bacterial infections. That is the simple part. Because both can produce fever and irritability, distinguishing between the two requires medical intervention. And the treatments differ greatly. Betty Staples, MD, a pediatrician, explains how to distinguish between the two forms of infections.
Every day, parents bring their sick children to the pediatrician to determine whether their child has “just a cold” or something more serious.
Colds cause 22 million missed school days and 20 million missed workdays for parents each year. Viruses that cause “just a cold” are the most common. However, we also know that our children can get other, less common diseases, which need to be evaluated by a pediatrician to see if medications are needed.
- The symptoms last longer than expected. A virus usually lasts 10-14 days.
- A virus causes a higher temperature than one would expect.
- Fever worsens rather than improves after a few days of illness.
Secondary infections include sinusitis, ear infections, and pneumonia, to name a few. A runny nose that lasts longer than 10-14 days, for example, could be a sinus infection that requires antibiotic treatment. An ear infection is most likely the cause of ear pain and fever following many days of a runny nose. These infections may or may not require antibiotics, depending on your child’s age.
Pneumonia can be identified by a persistent cough, stomach discomfort, or breathing difficulties. A physical examination or a chest x-ray may be used to diagnose pneumonia.
Urinary tract infections (UTIs), which can be difficult to identify and cause kidney damage if left untreated, are another bacterial ailment that we are concerned about. Your doctor will most likely want to check your child’s urine if he or she has a fever without a clear cause of illness. UTIs are more likely in uncircumcised little girls and infant boys under the age of one year.
Bacterial infections such as sepsis (bacteria in the blood) and bacterial meningitis are more significant problems (bacterial infection in the lining of the brain and spinal cord). Meningitis is a concern in older children with a stiff neck or changes in mental state. Babies are less likely to experience these signs, so we’re more likely to test them to make sure these illnesses aren’t the cause of their illness.
Keep in mind that many of your child’s vaccines in the first few years are designed to protect him or her from these dangerous bacterial infections.
A runny nose, cough, sore throat, low-grade fever & difficulty sleeping are all symptoms of common viral diseases like upper respiratory infections. Antibiotics and antiviral drugs will not help you recover faster from a cold.
In comparison to adults, children’s upper respiratory infections can last up to 14 days and occur regularly (average six to eight per year).
Influenza is a viral infection that includes many of the same symptoms as the flu but also comes with more severe bodily pains and higher fever. Unlike upper respiratory infections, antiviral therapy can lessen the course of the flu if caught during the first 48 hours of sickness.
At the beginning of each “flu season,” a dose of flu vaccination (or two doses a month apart in the case of a small child receiving flu vaccination for the first time) can help to prevent influenza infections.
Diagnosing Bacterial Infection
A complete blood count and cultures of the fluid in question are two tests that are frequently used to aid in the identification of a bacterial infection. A blood culture, urine culture, or spinal culture are examples of possible tests (which require a spinal tap).
Whether the infection is caused by a virus or bacteria, you should keep an eye on your child for any of the following symptoms and get medical help if they appear:
- Dehydration is indicated by a decrease in fluid intake, urine less than three times in a 24-hour period, or a decrease in tears when sobbing.
- Fast breathing, nostril-flaring, and the use of rib, stomach, or neck muscles to breathe are all examples of increased work of breathing.
- Significantly reduced activity or response
- Over a three- to five-day period, there was no improvement.
- Fever in toddlers under the age of three months
Infections are more common in children who are in close proximity to other children. However, keep in mind that most children these days (thanks to vaccinations that prevent the majority of serious secondary bacterial infections) will be infected with viruses that simply require supportive treatment.