Virus or Bacteria ?
Which one is biting you?

It makes a difference whether you've caught virus or bacteria (bacterium, if we say it in the singular) when you choose your medicine or method of treatment.

Viral means that it is caused by a virus (plural viruses, not virii or viri...). A virus is a little packet of DNA, surrounded by some protection, and some chemical/physical structures that can inject that packet of DNA into certain types of cells. The whole thing is too small to be seen by an ordinary optical microscope. It takes an electron microscope. For a visual guide to just how small things are, take a look at the animation at

Through most of its existence, a virus is inert. It doesn't move on its own (it just gets moved by whatever carries it). It has no awareness of surroundings. It doesn't seek food - it doesn't eat. It doesn't excrete anything - again, because it doesn't eat. It's a big lumpy molecule - which means it's a really tiny thing in our scheme of things. It basically does nothing at all unless the right chemical bumps against it in the right way, and then the protective shell mechanically uncoils and shoves its DNA component into whatever had that chemical on it... usually one of your cells.

Zombie Takeover

The part that did the shoving is finished; it was just a shell. The part that got shoved is DNA (or sometimes RNA, but we're simplifying here...) now floating in the soup [cytosol] that is the inside of a cell. In the right conditions, your cell's RNA (another important life chemical) uses your cell's DNA as a template to stitch together amino acids - floating around in the soup inside the cell - into a duplicate of the original DNA. This happens under controlled conditions when the cell is getting ready to reproduce.

When your cell's RNA encounters the virus DNA, it does the same thing - grabs proteins or amino acids out of the soup and stitches them together to make a copy of the virus DNA. But there are no controls for the viral DNA, so the RNA of your cell just makes more and more and more virus DNA copies until the cell is unable to live any more. At that point, the dying cell spews out a bunch of distress chemicals and bursts open and all those virus copies spill out into your body, where it all happens again. The inert, unknowing virus has tricked your cell into making more of the virus instead of more cell.

Active Little Killers

By contrast, bacteria are complete little living, active critters that move and seek food and avoid unpleasant stuff. They eat and excrete. They have living processes going on inside them, just as our own cells do.

So, out in the wild, a bacterium is living alongside many others of its kind. If some of them get into your body, they actively move toward food (the right kind of your cells), they fight back against your body's defenders, and they spew out bacteria-shit, which is usually toxic to you.

Meanwhile, out in that same wild (which includes the insides of you) virus doesn't actually do anything. As described in the previous section, it just sits there (wherever "there" happens to be), waiting for that fortuitous bump against a trigger-chemical - a specific chemical nub on the outside of one of your body's cells.

So the important thing here is that, at a rudimentary but effective level, bacteria do know where they are, and they do actively move, seeking to get away from their own shit and to get to newer, more bountiful sources of food (your body cells that have not yet been attacked).

Virus or bacteria why do you care?

Either way, virus or bacteria, they are disrupting your very necessary bodily cells and either making you miserable or doing you real damage.

You (and your doctor) care whether it's virus or bacteria because viruses are only one of the causes of disease in humans and animals and plants. Other things that bring disease to you and your family and your pets and your friends and co-workers are living critters - microorganisms, germs.

Those might be bacteria, parasites, fungi, yeasts, etc. There's quite a variety, but what they have in common is that they are alive in the sense that we think of things being alive. They move, they seek, they avoid, they ingest, they grow, they excrete.

They have internal structures and processes that need to be maintained. They have to ingest food or they die. They have to get away from their own excrement or they die. That means that they can be poisoned. And poisoning bacteria (and other living, attacking critters) with substances that are [relatively] harmless to us, but nasty to them, is one major way that we fight them. It's called antibiotics.

Granted, some of those critters are able to shut down and hibernate when conditions for living are not good (giving a good simulation of not being alive), and wake up later when local conditions start looking/feeling better. But in general, if conditions are even remotely livable, they live. They eat, process, and shit. And they reproduce.

So, virus or bacteria it makes a difference in how they affect you and in how you can fight back. Viruses don't seek you out. Viruses - after you've accidentally taken them on-board - don't seek out body cells where they can thrive. They just lie there, or bump around in your various fluids and tissues until they get cleaned up, or until they accidentally get bumped against a cell that has just the right bits on the outside to trigger the mechanical injector.

Viruses hurt you by mechanically invading your cells and by mechanically/chemically being more attractive to your own RNA that uses cell material to make more viruses instead of more "you" cells.

Even the dispersal is different. Bacteria, parasites, etc., when they've consumed what they can, move on to attack the next living cell. They move from areas of high concentrations of their own crap and low (used up) concentrations of human cell products, toward the smells of tasty fresh you-cells. By contrast, viruses just get moved by whatever is flowing when the cell that they are in collapses. The cell dies when its internal materials are consumed and it can't function anymore, and lets the new viruses float away inside your body. There's no "process" going on. That means there's nothing for medicine to attack.

Bacteria, yeasts, and others hurt you by living. They compete with your own cells for food, they excrete substances that poison your cells, and in some cases, they actively suck the juices out of your cells. The only reason that that is important to you is because the way that they exist and reproduce means that we need different treatments to make them die or go away.

How Can You Tell Whether It's Virus or Bacteria Making You Sick?

Symptom Virus Bacteria
runny nose frequently rarely
achy muscles usually rarely
headache frequently rarely
dizziness frequently rarely
fever often often
cough frequently sometimes
dry cough frequently rarely
presence of sputum often often
hoarseness usually rarely
Does an antibiotic prescription help? no usually*

That still doesn't tell you why you care - virus or bacteria

You care because the medical way to counter-attack against an attacking critter is to send in some chemicals that don't hurt you too much, but that disrupt the processes of a living germ. In other words, you ingest or inject antibiotics and those kill the attacking microbes or they at least greatly disturb and distract those microbes while your body musters its own defenses to finish-off the attackers.

Yeah? And?

And that doesn't work against viruses. Antibiotics are useless against viruses. That's why, when you have a viral ailment, you should not be an idiot and pressure your doctor to prescribe an antibiotic. The antibiotic has zero effect on the cold or flu or other virus that is attacking you, and it causes other problems in your body while it's doing nothing for your current illness except allowing you to feel righteous that you browbeat your weak-kneed doctor into prescribing a useless antibiotic.

Of course, some doctors are wise to such self-righteous stupidity and they just prescribe a placebo (a sugar pill or a salt-water injection) and you believe you've "won" and you stop bothering the doctor.

And your virus continues unaffected, until your body eventually figures it out (the virus) and puts a stop to it just as it was going to do anyway. And you smugly tell yourself that the antibiotics did the trick, and would have worked even faster if that ornery doctor hadn't stalled. Oh, sorry. That's not you? Then why are you reading this? This explanation is for people who don't know the difference between viruses and all the other beasties that want to set up house-keeping in our bodies. But they are sure that they know better than their doctor and that they need an antibiotic prescription to kill this thing that is completely unaffected by antibiotics.

There are drugs that will weaken, disrupt, or destroy viruses that have invaded your body, or prevent them from attaching to cells. But those anti-virals are usually very destructive. Of you. Think of the AIDs cocktails.

They can be effective, but much in the manner of chemotherapy for cancer, they work by poisoning your whole body in the hope that the virus (or a cancer) gives up first. That's why people on chemo and anti-viral drugs look so miserable. They are. They are basically being poisoned to death, and hoping that the virus (or the cancer) goes before the patient dies.

In most cases, it's simply not worth the destruction - of your body - to take anti-viral medicines. The virus that would justify such an attack must be particularly foul - like AIDS or ebola.

Anyway, this has been a summary of the practical distinction: virus or bacteria. We thought you wouldn't be all that interested in nitty-gritty explanations on the molecular and biochemical level - and besides, it's been a long time since college and we'd have to research that stuff again. Not gonna... unless you ask really nicely. ;->

Quick Links to all our common-cold-related pages

Here's the handy selection of our common cold / head-cold related pages on this Men's Health Tips (MHT) site:

The MHT page What the page is about

Virus versus Bacteria (this page)

What's the difference and why is it important to you

Misusing antibiotics

How you can be part of the problem, and make bacteria antibiotic resistant - create your own superbug

Prevent the Common Cold
Here are some things that should help prevent colds before you get them.

Fight/treat a cold
Here are some things that should help with colds after you get them.

Common-cold intro
The introductory page for this section about colds.

From this virus or bacteria page, return to the About the Common Cold page.

If this page wasn't where you wanted to be, go back to the home page.

PLEASE be aware that by using this site you agree to our Terms and Conditions. We don't mean to scare anybody, but we're pretty sure there's something hideously infectious lurking at the other end of this Terms and Conditions link. We suggest full haz-mat protection before you even think of clicking.

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