Bacteria vs Virus - How to Fight Them Both - Kaldzar
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Bacteria vs Virus – What’s the Difference, and How to Beat Them

Bacteria. Image by CDC, cropped

Bacteria vs Virus – What’s the Difference, and How to Beat Them

Your body is being hijacked… You’re fevered, ill, and no longer in control… Microscopic entities are flooding through your systems and using your own cells against you. What is happening?! Is the pathogen a virus or bacteria? And how do you stop these foreign invaders?

We are entering the typical cold and flu season and are still grappling with the COVID pandemic. At the very least, dealing with any kind of illness -even minor and passing- can greatly affect your mood, energy and productivity. In turn, this negatively impacts your work, as well as your ability to take care of yourself and your family. But at their worst, infections from pathogens can lead to chronic sickness, severe health problems and worse. Therefore, we should all take precautions to stay as safe and healthy as possible. In order to support your efforts to stay well, I’ll explain how bacteria differ from viruses, and provide tips on how to deal with both.

Virus and Bacteria Similarities

In order to answer “what is the difference between bacteria vs virus?” let’s first look at similarities. Then we can examine the two separately.

The thing that most people know is: bacteria and viruses can both cause infections and make you sick. Because they share this in common, many people don’t realize just how different a bacterium is from a virus. Yes, both bacteria and viruses are microscopic, so are too small to be seen with the naked eye. And both can enter your body through any opening, but most often through the nose and mouth. Additionally, they both also contain DNA (or RNA) and enzymes. But that is pretty much where the similarities end.

To be clear, there are other types of pathogens (like fungal spores and parasites) that can make you sick. But we’ll save those for another discussion. Today we are focusing on viruses and bacteria since those are the most common, and are most relevant to current epidemics.

Definition of Bacteria

Bacteria (singular: bacterium) are simple microbes which are typically single-celled. Unlike more complex organisms, their cells lack a nucleus and membrane-bound organelles. Basically, they contain many of the features of animal cells, but their DNA loop and “organs” form a soup within with cell wall.

Bacteria are classified into five groups. These are based on their basic shapes: spherical (cocci), rod (bacilli), spiral (spirilla), comma (vibrios) or corkscrew (spirochaetes). As noted, most bacteria are single-celled. However, some exist in pairs, chains or clusters.

The unit “μm” is a measurement of length, the “micrometer”, and equals 1/10,000 of a centimeter. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. Authors: Kestin Schulz, Mariya W. Smit, Lydie Herfort and Holly M. Simon

Bacteria were among some of the first forms of life to inhabit Earth. They are extremely prolific and are likely the most diverse kingdom of living things on the planet. There are billions of different bacteria species, which have evolved to inhabit just about every habitat. In nature, various types of bacteria are critical to the Nutrient Cycle. They help recycle nutrients via such processes as the decomposition of dead organisms and fixation of nitrogen from the atmosphere.

Additionally, trillions of bacteria live in and on your body. In fact, you carry so much bacteria, their cells outnumber your own body cells by about 10 to 1!

Once bacteria find a suitable habitat with the conditions and food they need to survive, these microorganisms begin to multiply. Sometimes they swap DNA, but most bacterium cells contain all they need in order to replicate themselves. Under the right conditions, a few bacteria can quickly grow into a thriving bacteria colony. This is great when it comes to helpful bacteria. However, a bacterial bloom of the bad type can severely impact your health.

If there are so many bacteria in you, then why aren’t you dead or at least sick all the time?

Bacteria play an important role in making up your body’s microbiome. While many live on the skin, a great many are within the digestive tract. Most of these bacteria are harmless or otherwise held in check by the protective effects of your immune system. Moreover, a good number of these microbial passengers are actually beneficial to you, particularly those in the gut. External bacteria can help keep your skin healthy. And those populating your intestines help with digestion as well as your immunity. Your immune system recognizes which “bad” bacteria to fight and dispose of, as well as the “good” bacteria to keep. And at the same time, it also relies on certain gut bacteria to boost the immune response. Without a healthy microbiome of bacteria, your body wouldn’t be able to eat certain foods. But in addition, you would also become sick more often.

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Of course, a number of bacteria species are pathogenic. These cause infectious diseases such as cholera, syphilis, anthrax, leprosy, and bubonic plague. The most common fatal bacterial diseases are respiratory infections, often related to bacterial pneumonia. Other less chronic -though still debilitating- bacterial infections you may be familiar with are food poisoning, sinusitis, pink eye and UTIs. Your body can fend off many harmful bacteria. However, most immune systems need a boost in order to fight these aggressive invaders above, especially after infection.

Definition of Virus

Viruses. Image by CDC.

Viruses are also microbes; however, they are considerably smaller than bacteria. In fact, most viruses cannot be seen with a standard light microscope. Images of viruses are captured using electron microscopes. They can remain so very tiny due to their basic structure. They have no cell wall and no organelles. Rather, they have DNA or RNA coils within a simple protein coat, called a capsid, and possibly an outer envelope.

Cells are the smallest unit of life. They manufacture proteins, replicate DNA and store resources. This makes them perfect hosts for viruses. Viruses are parasitic in the sense that they require their hosts in order to replicate. Their goal is to infect healthy cells and convert them into mindless virus-producing robots. The virus uses its outer protein coat covered in small molecular receptors to bind and join to the membrane of a cell. This is essential as it is what determines which cells a virus is able to infect.

Once joined, the virus uses several complicated biological pathways in order to force the cell to either accept its genetic material, or take in the entire virus itself. Once in the cell, the virus will then begin to use its molecular arsenal to hijack the cells protein manufacturing systems and DNA replication mechanism. After the virus has integrated itself into the cells DNA, the cell will then replicate its DNA and use it to manufacture proteins. Without the cell even knowing, it produces viral protein shells, filling them with virus DNA effectively making copies of the virus and assembling them. As these copies are released, the virus-making machine begins to take over more and more of the body’s cells.

Learn More About Viruses and How to Fight Them

** Neat Fact: You’re Part Virus! **
When viruses infect us and hijack our cells, they can embed parts of their DNA into our DNA. Although this is rare, it has been happening for millions of years. So over time, the viral DNA that has snuck into the human DNA has accumulated. Your DNA right now is comprised of around 10% virus DNA. Like mutations, the chunks of viral DNA in our genome were inserted randomly. Some is harmful such as viral DNA that can cause cancer.

Are Viruses Alive?

Let’s take a moment to consider: “Are bacteria and viruses living things?”

In order for something to be classified as a living, it must have these five traits.

  1. Made of cells
  2. Grows and reproduces (on it’s own)
  3. Responds to stimuli in the environment
  4. Can pass on genetic information
  5. Maintains homeostasis / internal balance

If just one of those characteristics is missing it is not considered a living thing. Bacteria meet all of the above requirements. They’re made of a single cell that divides to reproduce and maintains homeostasis as their environment changes. When it comes to bacteria vs virus, only one can truly be considered “living”.

Strep Bacteria.  Image by CDC

Viruses are in a gray area between living and nonliving things. For example, they cannot reproduce without hijacking the cells of a host. This means they don’t have the characteristics of reproduction. All other living things can reproduce without taking over another organisms cells and using it for their own purposes. Living things either find a mate and reproduce, like humans, or split in two using a form of asexual reproduction, like bacteria. Viruses can’t do either of these things.

Another characteristic of a living things is that they respond to their environment. When it comes to viruses, they are again in a grey area where they don’t so much respond to their environment, viruses change the genetic code of cells to suit their needs. They can cause cells to make copies of themselves along with protein cells that carry them to new cells to infect. Bacteria on the other hand will respond to their environment. They’ll make more copies of themselves when there is an abundance of resources or swap their genetic code with another bacteria around them.

Viruses may be considered the most prolific “life-like” thing on this planet. However, bacteria are definitely the most numerous truly living organisms on Earth.

Ways to Boost Your Immunity

The easiest way to avoid contracting any illness is simply to reduce your exposure to bacteria, viruses and other pathogens. Some simple but effective preventative actions are:

  • Clean surfaces with alcohol, bleach, or other agents that are proven to kill bacteria.
  • Avoid touching surfaces and then touching your mouth, nose, or eyes.
  • Wash your hands often and thoroughly with soap and running water, or with alcohol.
  • Practice social-distancing. And limit contact with those who are known to be infected and contagious.
  • Wear a mask that covers your mouth and nose when around others who may possibly be infected. This simply cuts down on the bacterial cells you may inhale – or transmit.

But also keep in mind that human immune systems have been fighting bacteria and other harmful invaders since the beginning of time. That means one of the best ways to fight pathogens is simply to take care of your natural immune system. You just need to practice the habits that best support and promote your body’s own immune response.

  • Exercise on a regular basis to increase the production of white blood cells.
  • Reduce stress to decrease your production of cortisol, a hormone that inhibits your immune system’s effectiveness.
  • Get enough quality sleep to enables a well-balanced immune defense with strong innate and adaptive immunity, and efficient response to vaccines. Moreover, when we sleep we produce cytokines, proteins which target infection and inflammation, and create a positive immune response.
  • Eat a well-balanced diet to ensure your body has all the nutrients it needs to build antibodies and virus-fighting cells.

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All of the above tips are useful to keep your body in top condition to defend itself. But sometimes your immune system gets overrun or otherwise needs some additional help. Luckily, modern medicine has provided solutions to what ails us. But to start, we need to make the distinction whether the pathogen is a virus or bacteria. This is important because only certain medicines work for certain types of pathogens.

Vaccines and Antibodies

A type of treatment that is effective against both virus and bacterium is a vaccine. Vaccines work with your immune system to create antibodies to tag and eliminate viruses, bacteria and other pathogens from your body.

In general, how a vaccination works is:

  1. A weakened or dead form of the pathogen is introduced to the body, activating the immune system.
  2. Your immune system identifies it as “harmful” and makes antibodies that mark it for destruction. It stores this information for later use so that it will remember and recognize the intruder in the future.
  3. The antibodies are like alert dogs patrolling your body. When they see an invader, they flag it with a special signal. This marker tells your white blood cells to destroy the intruder.
  4. If you are ever infected by the actual pathogen, your body should already have immunity to it. Your immune system should immediately flag the foreign particles for immediate elimination before the they can take hold and make you sick.
Vaccine Preparation. Image by Mufid Majnun.

Boosting acquired immunity via vaccines has been proven as the most effective method of preventing infectious disease. This method has helped globally eliminate smallpox greatly curb instances of polio, measles and tetanus. Other vaccines for influenza, HPV, and chickenpox are also common and effective. While some may still debate the long-term effects of the COVID-19 vaccine, current evidence shows it prevents a great deal of coronavirus infections and limits the duration and severity of such an infection.

Antiviral Medications

“Antivirals” are drugs that are specially-designed to help the body fight off harmful viruses. These drugs can ease symptoms and shorten the length of a viral infection, and some can even help prevent them from spreading. Antiviral medicines work differently depending on the drug and virus type, but in general they can:

  • Block receptors so viruses can’t bind to and enter healthy cells.
  • Boost the immune system, helping it fight off a viral infection.
  • Lower the viral load (amount of active virus) in the body.
Doctor giving medicines. Image by Karolina Gabowska

Importantly, for most anti-viral medications to be effective, the drugs must be administered within a certain time frame. Further, they are only effective when the medicine is in the patients system. For example, if you were to travel to parts of the world with yellow fever, you could take a yellow fever drug. But you have to take the pills as prescribed by your doctor, before and during your trip, in order for the drug to be effective. Nevertheless, they are proven to be effective. Doctor have successful antivirus medications for Ebola, Flu, Herpes, Hepatitis and HIV. Research on antivirals for COVID-19 look promising so those should be approved an available soon.

What Is An Antibiotic

Last but not least, we get to the medicines that are specifically-designed to fight bacteria: Antibiotics. So let’s be extremely clear up front: antibiotics do NOT work against viruses. Period. Anti = “against”. Biotic = “living”. Ergo, antibiotics only work against living things. Antibiotics fight bacterial infections either by killing bacteria or slowing and suspending its growth. They do this by:

  • Attacking the wall or coating surrounding bacteria.
  • Interfering with bacteria reproduction.
  • Blocking protein production in bacteria.

As described, viruses are “complicated” and not truly alive. Since they don’t have cell walls nor reproduce using cellular division, antibiotics have no effect on them.

The first modern-day antibiotic was used in 1936. Before antibiotics, 30% of all deaths were caused by bacterial infections. Thanks to antibiotics, previously fatal infections are curable.

What is Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria

When the environment of a bacteria changes, such as when an antibiotic is introduced, the bacteria will be killed by it. That is, unless a random mutation allows one bacteria to become resistant and therefore able to fight off the antibiotic. If this happens that species of bacteria will keep on multiplying and could lead to severe illness or death.

Antibiotic resistance is a process thats driven by natural selection. The bacteria can literally evolve in your body to become resistant to antibiotics. This is why it’s so important to take the correct dosage for the correct amount of time when prescribed antibiotics by your doctor. Even when you stop showing symptoms you must complete your antibiotic regimen because if you don’t, the bacteria you were trying to kill will more likely develop resistance to that antibiotic.

This is also why we don’t want to take antibiotics unless necessary: You may be unknowingly giving bacteria the means to mutate and propagate resistance to the drug.

Stay Safe Out There

Yes, it’s true that you are constantly surrounded by pathogens. But hopefully this information helps you realize the difference between bacteria vs virus, and some tips on how to stay healthy. First, do your part to stay fit, rested and well-fed. Second, stay physically and hygienically protected as much as possible. Then take extra steps to boost your defense systems with immunity-boosting supplements. Finally, heed your doctor when they diagnose or giving warning about specific viruses vs bacteria. Take only the correct medication that has is proven to address whatever you may be facing.

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Dave Hughes

Editor and Contributing Author at Kaldzar

Certified Biologist and Data Scientist
Constantly curious; Curiously compassionate

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