It hits, hard. You’re in the middle of a busy week then—bam—you realize you’re getting sick. Noooooooo! You don’t have the time to be down for the count. So when it comes to figuring out a plan, do you have a bacterial infection that can be quickly healed by antibiotics? Or a viral illness that requires a longer, rest-filled, wait-and-see approach to treatment?

A physician’s treatment will depend on the type of invader that’s taken hold of your body, explains Dr. Jason Tibbels, Vice President of Teladoc Health Services. So don’t waste time, energy, or suffering on a response that doesn’t match your condition. Check out our guide on infections as kids head back to school where they’re rampant.

Decoding differences

Bacterial and viral infections, while very different, can look alike and behave similarly. Both types can be spread by microbes in saliva or mucus that can infect others through a cough or sneeze, or by putting your hands near your mouth, eyes, or nose after you’ve touched a germ-covered surface. Some conditions like pneumonia, meningitis, and diarrhea can be caused by bacteria or viruses. Even upper respiratory troubles can result from various type of bugs.

Bacteria are single-celled microorganisms that mostly help our bodies operate properly. But when infectious bacteria spreads though the body, it can wreak havoc. Common bacterial infections include strep throat, staph infections, food poisoning, and some sexually transmitted diseases such as gonorrhea and chlamydia. These may require taking antibiotics to kill the bacteria so you start feeling better, Dr. Tibbels says.

Viruses are very different kinds of pathogens that thrive on living hosts, invading the cells and multiplying. Viruses can attack your organs or blood to make you feel sick, or remain harmless as your immune system fights them off. Vaccines can help prevent certain viral diseases, but there is no straightforward “cure.” HIV/AIDS, influenza, chicken pox, and the common cold are examples of viruses.

Common conditions and symptoms

Colds, which are infections of the nose and throat, are responsible for 75 to 100 million physician visits every year.* These viruses can make you feel miserable, leading to an estimated 22 million to 189 million lost school days and 150 million lost workdays for those suffering from the sniffles and beyond.* Runny nose, sneezing, fatigue, difficulty sleeping, sore throat, and cough usually affect cold sufferers for three to seven days.

Since the cause of the common cold is viral, there’s no cure, but there are many ways to prevent and treat this ailment. First, frequently wash hands, especially after using the restroom and before eating. Bring a hand sanitizer when in crowded places and running water isn’t available. If you do start having cold symptoms, use a humidifier and saline irrigation to keep the nasal passages moist and clean. Drink plenty of fluids and eat a healthy diet, treating your throat with lozenges and crushed ice if sore. Pain medication can help ease discomfort, and resting will allow your body to fight the infection quicker. A physician can recommend other strategies for healing and relief.

Talk to a doctor

The flu, or influenza virus, causes many of the same symptoms as a cold, but also brings high fevers and achiness. About 13 percent of the U.S. population gets the flu each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with closer to 20 percent afflicted—or 62 million Americans—during the most active flu seasons.** Treat the flu with plenty of rest and fluids to prevent dehydration. Use warm compresses or pain relievers to help with head and sinus pain. Flu antivirals are prescription medicines that can help some patients if they start them within two days of getting sick. Talk to a doctor about whether this is a fit for you.

More about intervention

It’s important to get checked by a physician if you’re unsure what type of illness you or your child has. Think about making an appointment if you have symptoms that last longer than 10 days, if you have recurrent or high fevers, or experience shortness of breath or faintness. Those with weakened immune systems, the elderly, and young babies should always seek medical attention for presence of a fever and possible infection.

Vaccines have been very effective in protecting against both viral and bacterial infections. Vaccines have greatly reduced the occurrence of the flu, measles, HPV, and polio on the viral side, to name a few, as well as meningitis and whooping cough from infectious bacteria. Medical research demonstrates that vaccinations have been successful in preventing disease epidemics both in the U.S. and worldwide.

Teladoc physicians are experts at evaluating illnesses and determining the right course of treatment. Since certain ailments won’t respond to antibiotic interventions, the medical community must remain cautious about prescribing these medications due to the rise of antibiotic-resistant infection. Discuss your symptoms and their duration with one of our U.S.-board certified Teladoc physicians 24/7 on your mobile device or online through secure video. The path to wellness is just ahead!

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