fun factspopular science

bacteria vs viruses

Quiz time: Do you think a good dose of antibiotics will knock that cold or flu out of you?

Um, think again.

Antibiotics, if prescribed and taken correctly, usually can kill bacteria but they are useless against viruses such as the cold and flu.

Unlike bacteria, viruses generally require vaccination to prevent them in the first place or antiviral drugs to treat them. Often, the only treatment for a viral infection is to let the illness run its course. Bacteria and viruses are often confused with each other, but.

Bacteria (bacterium for singular) are simple organisms — made up of only one cell and are about 1000 nanometres in size. If you wonder how exactly that could be, a nanometre is one-millionth of a cute little millimeter.

And if there is one thing about bacteria to be recollected from now on, is this — We have more bacterial cells in our bodies than human cells — and more than there are people on the whole planet Earth.

So, they can be quite good, well-millionth and useful.

Gut bacteria produce vitamins and help us and animals digest food, bacteria in the roots help legumes (plants in the pea and bean family) get nitrogen out of the soil, which helps them grow. They are also one of the main little helpers in making the food humans like so damn much — cheese, bread, and yogurt.

Thanks, bacteria.

Speaking of thanks, bacteria produce oxygen — perhaps as much as half of the oxygen in the atmosphere. Mhm.

And another one thank you goes to bacteria — they  (usually dead or weak ones) are used to make vaccines.

Also, the good side of their purpose, bacteria are used to clean water in sewage plants and it’s proven that they can be quite helpful in “eating” up the oil spills.

A single bacterium can be shaped like an elongated sphere (they are called coccus), like a rod (bacillus) or they can be spiral (spirillum).

Different bacteria can live at a huge range of temperatures, from ice to hot springs, and can even live in radioactive waste.

But, take care. Bacteria can cause food poisoning (throwing up and diarrhea). This is why chicken and pork need to be cooked thoroughly, and why some food should be kept in the fridge.

Bacterial infections like strep throat, tuberculosis, and urinary tract infections, can be cured with antibiotics – drugs that kill bacteria. However, using antibiotics too often, or for diseases that don’t need that kind of treatment, like colds and flu (because they are straight up caused by viruses) can stop the antibiotics from working (known as antibiotic resistance).

That being said — viruses.

The name virus was coined from the Latin word meaning slimy liquid or poison. The first human virus is discovered in 1901 by Walter Reedthe yellow fever virus.

Viruses are simpler and smaller than bacteria, made up of the genetic code (DNA or RNA) with a protein shell.

Some scientists don’t actually describe them as being alive (they are inanimate complex organic matter) compared to those breathing bacteria, so they can’t reproduce on their own – they need to take over another cell (plant, animal, or human).


Before I break down some pretty eek facts about viruses, I’ll say that some of them are useful. Especially those called bacteriophages (meaning ‘bacteria eater’) that kill bacteria and are used to protect people against harmful bacteria hiding in food.

As it is widely known, viruses cause disease — covid-19, colds, and flu are caused by viruses, as well as common diseases like chickenpox, measles, mumps, and German measles (rubella). HIV, which causes AIDS, is a straight-up virus. Once people have had some viral infections, like chickenpox, it makes them immune from having it again – holly vaccination creates the same kind of immunity, so can prevent people from getting viral infections.

The more people who are vaccinated reduces the amount of infection in a population, protecting even those people who are not vaccinated – this is called ‘herd immunity’.

Depending on the virus, 85-95% of people need to be vaccinated to protect the rest of the people.

This is my dear people, why vaccination is so, so, so important. On the other hand, there’s no vaccine against colds, as there are so many different viruses that cause colds. Flu vaccines change every year, as there are a number of different virus strains, and the viruses mutate (change) all the time.

And please, consider this one. Viral infections cannot be cured with antibiotics – most viral infections, like a cold or flu, or some chest infections, just get better on their own.

Viruses are passed on by sneezing and coughing, or by touching someone who has a viral infection – this is why it is important to cough or sneeze into tissues and wash hands regularly when infected with a cold or other viral infection. How are similar?

Both viral and bacterial infections are spread by:

  • Coughing and sneezing
  • Contact with infected people, especially through kissing and sex
  • Contact with contaminated surfaces, food, and water
  • Contact with infected creatures, including pets, livestock, and insects like fleas and ticks.

Viruses and bacteria are tricky. Not only can they cause similar symptoms but many illnesses — like pneumonia, meningitis, and diarrhea — can be caused by either a virus or a bacterium.

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