Bacteria vs Virus | What's the Difference?

Since bacterial and viral infections often cause similar symptoms, it's easy to confuse them for the same thing. However, there are many essential differences between viruses and bacteria, and the treatment options vary considerably – here's everything you need to know.  

What Are Bacterial Infections? 

Bacterial infections are caused by bacteria. So, what exactly are bacteria?

Bacteria are single-celled organisms. They can reproduce on their own, meaning they don't need to attach to a living cell to multiply. For the most part, they don't cause us any harm. Some bacteria, however, do cause illnesses, including:

  • Tuberculosis
  • Strep throat
  • E. coli and salmonella food poisoning
  • Whooping cough
  • Tetanus
  • Anthrax
  • Pneumococcal pneumonia
  • Some urinary tract infections (UTIs)

How Are Bacterial Infections Spread?

Bacterial infections can be contagious, which means that one person can spread the infection to another. There are a few ways this typically occurs:

  • Touching contaminated surfaces, such as door handles, then touching your eyes, nose, or mouth
  • Having close contact with an infected person, such as kissing
  • Being around a sick person and inhaling droplets from coughs and sneezes

You can also get sick if an infected insect bites you, if you eat undercooked food, or if you drink contaminated water.

What Are Viral Infections?

Viral infections are caused by  you guessed it  viruses. Viruses are even smaller than bacteria, and they rely on host cells to replicate. Once attached to the cell, they use the cell's own components to grow and multiply, and they can kill the host cell in the process. 

Common viral infections include:

  • The cold and flu
  • Chickenpox
  • Coronavirus (COVID-19)
  • Measles
  • Polio
  • Rabies
  • Norovirus
  • Meningitis
  • Infectious mononucleosis (mono)

How Do Viral Infections Spread?

Like bacterial infections, viral infections are often contagious, and they spread easily from person to person. Viruses are spread by:

  • Coughing and sneezing without covering your mouth and nose
  • Close contact with an infected person
  • Sharing utensils

You can also contract viruses through animal and insect bites, or by consuming dirty water and food. 

Can I Treat Bacterial and Viral Infections the Same Way?

The short answer is no – here's why. 

You can take antibiotics to treat bacterial infections, but they're completely ineffective against viruses. Taking antibiotics when you don't need them can lead to what's known as antibiotic resistance, which causes antibiotics to stop working properly. 

If you have a viral infection, you should rest and wait for the symptoms to pass on their own. Antiviral drugs may be recommended for severe viral infections, including HIV. 

Can I Prevent Bacterial and Viral Infections?

Vaccines can prevent certain serious viral and bacterial infections, including:

  • Smallpox
  • Polio
  • Seasonal flu
  • Measles
  • Tetanus

There are also a few simple steps you can take to reduce your chance of developing an infection:

  • Cough or sneeze into your elbow, not your hands.
  • Wash your hands for 20-30 seconds with soap and water, or use hand sanitiser.
  • Cook food thoroughly before eating it.
  • Avoid sharing glasses and utensils with a sick person.
  • Don't pick at healing wounds.
  • Clean out cuts and grazes.
  • Check with your doctor if you need any shots before travelling to high-risk areas.


Although it's impossible to avoid all bacterial and viral infections, you can limit your chances of picking up germs by washing your hands regularly with a great sanitiser like ours. Your Sanitiser is a convenient, reliable way to protect yourself against many common viruses and bacteria. Find out more HERE