Can a viral infection turn into a bacterial infection? The answer is “Yes”
Most parents I know are confused about bacterial and viral infections
Watch the video below for a brief overview of bacterial and viral infections in your child.
Read a detailed explanation about how to differentiate bacterial infections from viral infections below the video
Have you sometimes been horrified when you have taken your child who seems to just have a cold to the doctor and been told – “Why did you bring your child in so late? Your child now has a bacterial infection!”
Children always seem to have the flu and a cold and so we hope that they will be cured with home remedies.
But a cold that goes on for more than a few days cannot be ignored.
If you are a parent – these are the facts you need to know about viral and bacterial infections.
Can a cold or a viral infection, turn into a bacterial infection?
The answer is “Yes”
A cold is caused by a virus and when it persists for long enough – it can turn into a bacterial infection.
You may be confused if you have encountered a situation like this.
How does a virus infection turn into a bacterial infection?
When a child is under the attack of a virus – his whole immune system is compromised. His immunity is lowered.
Under normal circumstances – when the immune system is functioning well it is difficult for bacteria to overpower the immune system and cause disease in a child.
However, when the child’s immunity is lowered by three days of viral infection – bacteria can easily overpower the immune system and attack the body and cause bacterial infection.
So – what started out as a viral infection can turn into a bacterial infection.
When does a virus infection turn into a bacterial infection?
Bacteria can find a foot hold and overpower the immune system when it is weak.
The immune system becomes weak only after the immunity has been lowered for 3-4 days by a viral infection.
The symptoms of bacterial infection which is then called secondary bacterial infection therefore appear 3-4 days after the child falls sick.
Sometimes however the virus may not succeed in lowering the immunity. And the immune system itself may overpower the virus and cure the cold in 3 days. In such cases the infection may never become a bacterial infection.
Also read – Why wait before starting an antibiotic?
What is the difference between a bacterial infection and a viral infection?
It is very difficult for someone who is not a trained doctor to differentiate a bacterial infection from a viral infection but here are some pointers
Bacterial infections are caused by bacteria and usually cause localized infections accompanied by high-grade fever, cough with yellow or green sputum and sore throat. A child with a bacterial infection can rapidly deteriorate and become very sick. Bacterial infections can make children very listless and apathetic.
Viral infections caused by viruses cause a low or high-grade fever with a dry cough or a runny nose. Viral infection can make children very cranky because of muscle pain and tiredness.
It is better however to see a doctor as soon as your child is sick to avoid any confusion in diagnosis and delay in treatment.
Do antibiotics work for viral infections?
No. Antibiotics have absolutely no effect on viruses and cannot cure viral infections. Antibiotics are therefore of no use in the initial stages of a cold or a viral infection.
During the first three days of a viral infection – there is battle between the immune system and the virus that is causing the cold or the fever.
If by the third day – the virus wins – then the weak and defeated immune system is attacked by bacteria. At this point antibiotics are useful.
That is why doctors wait for 3 days before starting an antibiotic – because in some cases where the viral infection does not turn into a bacterial infection – antibiotics may not be required at all.
How do you know if a cough is viral or bacterial?
It is not easy to make out if the cough your child has is viral or bacterial unless a doctor examines your child.
However the following things indicate that a cough may be bacterial and that you may need to see the doctor with your child
- A cough that lasts more than 5 days
- A cough associated with fever
- A cough that brings out green or yellow phlegm
- A cough that causes wheezing and difficulty in breathing
Bacterial infection in babies and children
Babies usually have very good immunity up to the age of one year because they are still full of the immune substances that have been passed to them from the mother in the womb. Also – many of them are still on breast milk which is a rich source of immune substances.
If a baby gets a bacterial infection however, it can become life threatening rapidly because of the small size of the baby.
Most of the serious bacterial diseases in babies are now vaccine preventable. It is important to vaccinate your baby on time so that your baby is safe from the killer bacterial infections before the immunity starts falling at the age of one.
Bacterial infections in children are seen more after they learn how to move around and touch things. As they touch various things and then take their hands to their faces – they often transfer the bacteria to their mouths and noses. And this results in infection. The easiest way to prevent this is by washing the hands and keeping them clean.
How to stop a viral infection from affecting your child
Viral infections can be prevented by building immunity. A balanced healthy diet, enough water and enough sleep can go a long way in keeping children safe from viral infections. Washing hands frequently and correctly and getting plenty of fresh air and lots of physical exercise is the best way to keep this immunity intact.
It is best to work towards building immunity and preventing viral infections so that they never turn into bacterial infections. However in case your child has an infection it is best to steer clear of self-diagnosis and treatment and reach out to the doctor to tell you whether it is a viral infection or a bacterial infection and also what you should then do.
Read more about bacterial and viral infections here
Dr Debmita Dutta MBBS, MD is a practicing clinician and a Parenting and Wellness Consultant in Bangalore. She conducts Parenting Workshops at schools and corporates. Her workshops and consultations are aimed at hand holding parents through their parenting journey. Contact - 9611739400 and firstname.lastname@example.org