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Bacterial and viral infections can present with similar symptoms, but they are caused by two distinct types of microbes (single-celled germs that can cause disease) and are treated differently. 

Both bacterial and viral infections can be minor (like sore throat), moderate (like chickenpox), or severe (like meningitis). The symptoms of both types of infection are similar.

Some infections can be caused by either bacteria or a virus. Examples include ear infections, pneumonia, meningitis, and upper respiratory infections (URIs), including the common cold. Your pediatrician may have to do diagnostic testing to determine whether the infection is viral or bacterial so they can treat the infection appropriately.

Read on to learn about the causes and symptoms of bacterial and viral infections and how your pediatrician might treat them.

Bacterial Infections

You won’t be surprised to learn that bacterial infections are caused by bacteria. Bacteria are tiny microbes that enter the body and multiply. Many bacteria are beneficial to humans, like those in the stomach that help with the digestion of food. However, other types of bacteria can cause infection and illness.

Types of Bacterial Infections 

The most common bacterial infections in children are ear infection, strep throat, and skin infections such as impetigo. Other examples include: 

  • Urinary tract infection (UTI).
  • Bacterial pneumonia. 
  • Pertussis (whooping cough).
  • Bacterial meningitis.
  • Lyme disease.

Causes of Bacterial Infections 

Most bacterial infections are contagious. They can be spread by: 

  • Coughing or sneezing.
  • Contact with an infected person, including touching and kissing.
  • Contaminated water or food.
  • Touching contaminated surfaces and then touching your face, nose, or mouth.
  • Cuts on the skin.
  • Contact with infected animals.
  • Transfer from mother to child during pregnancy or childbirth. 

Viral Infections

As you may have guessed, viral infections are caused by viruses. Viruses are microbes that are even smaller than bacteria, and there are hundreds of viruses that can infect humans. They enter the body and hide in cells where the body’s illness-fighting antibodies can’t reach them. This makes them difficult to treat and not responsive to antibiotics. 

Types of Viral Infections 

The most common viral infections seen in children include the common cold, ear infections, tonsillitis, bronchiolitis, chickenpox, and skin infections like molluscum contagiosum and warts. Other examples include: 

  • Influenza (flu).
  • Hand, foot, and mouth disease. 
  • Fifth disease.
  • Viral pneumonia.
  • Measles. 
  • Epstein-Barr virus/mononucleosis.
  • Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).
  • Viral meningitis. 
  • Viral infections can be acute (short-term) or chronic (long-term or even lifelong).

Causes of Viral Infection

Many viruses are contagious. Some of the ways they can spread from person to person are:

  • Coughing and sneezing.
  • Vomit.
  • Bites from infected insects like mosquitoes.
  • Exposure to infected body fluids or needles. 
  • Transfer from mother to child during pregnancy or childbirth.

Symptoms of Bacterial and Viral Infections 

The symptoms of both types of infections are similar. In general, symptoms are the body’s efforts to rid itself of the infection. Common signs of infection include:

  • Cold symptoms
  • Fever. 
  • Sneezing.
  • Vomiting.
  • Diarrhea.
  • Cramping.
  • Fatigue.
  • Inflammation.

How Diagnoses Are Determined

If your child has symptoms of an infection other than common cold symptoms, you should make an appointment with their pediatrician. The pediatrician will review your child’s medical history and do a physical exam.

Because the symptoms of viral and bacterial infections are so similar, the doctor may also order blood work, urine tests, or cultures to identify the bacteria or virus. Occasionally they will order a biopsy (in cases of skin infection, for example).

Treatment for Infections

Once your child’s doctor has identified the type of infection, they will determine how best to treat it.

In the case of a bacterial infection, your doctor may decide that the infection will clear safely on its own and will advise symptom management. This could include medications like acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Motrin) to control fever, along with rest and drinking lots of fluids. Other times, your doctor may prescribe an antibiotic. 

If your child’s infection is viral, antibiotics will not help. Most viruses are self-limited, meaning that the virus will “run its course” and your child’s immune system will clear the virus on its own. Medications are available for severe viral infections, but in most cases, your doctor will suggest symptom management alone. 

How to Prevent Infection

Vaccinations provide the best protection from some major viruses such as measles, hepatitis A and B, and polio as well as bacterial illnesses like influenza, whooping cough, and tetanus.  

With acute infectious illness, frequent handwashing is the best way to prevent spreading an infection to others, especially after toileting and after handling animals. Teach your child to always cover their nose or mouth when they cough or sneeze, or better still, cough or sneeze into their elbow. Avoid contact with others who have symptoms of respiratory infections. Disinfect doorknobs, counters, and other hard surfaces in your home regularly.


Bacterial and viral infections have a lot in common, including similar symptoms.

Your child should see a doctor if they have infectious symptoms other than common cold symptoms.

Vaccination is the best way to prevent major viral illnesses.

The best way to prevent acute infection is with good hand washing and avoiding those who are sick.

Symptom management is the best way to manage many bacterial infections. In some cases, your doctor may prescribe an antibiotic. 

Antibiotics do not help with viral infections. Most childhood viruses will get better on their own with rest and symptom management.

Choose Pediatrics On Demand, Today!

Here at Pediatrics On Demand, we have all the knowledge and experience necessary to successfully treat and provide care for your child. Contact us today to make an appointment or for more information.