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What is the Difference Between an Antiviral and an Antibiotic?

By Kathy Heydasch
Updated: Mar 03, 2024

Viral infections and bacterial infections are two very different afflictions, although each is commonly mistaken for the other. This is because the symptoms are often the same or very similar. An antiviral and an antibiotic are both medicines designed to ward off illness by attacking what is causing the infection. Bacterial infections and viral infections can be either mild or life-threatening, depending on the type.

Both an antiviral and an antibiotic are designed to help a person ward off illness or disease. They work in similar ways, targeting the cells that are causing the illness. There is some controversy over the overprescribing of these drugs, as introducing either of these into a healthy or unhealthy immune system could present dangerous side effects. In addition, the overuse of an antiviral and an antibiotic could create stronger, more resistant strains of the dangerous organisms.

Bacteria are single-celled microorganisms that are prevalent everywhere and thrive under all sorts of conditions. Millions of bacterium can be present at any one time all over the human body, inside and out, and most are harmless. Antibiotics were introduced in the 1940s and have saved the lives of millions of people. In most cases, antibiotics work to kill off the offending bacteria rather than just suppress the growth. Common bacterial infections include strep throat, respiratory illnesses and urinary tract infections. Rare forms of bacterial infections can be fatal and include bacterial meningitis and botulism.

Viruses are microorganisms that need a host in order to survive. They are dormant outside of the host, and therefore antivirals must be administered after someone has been infected or they are injected into a healthy system in order to create an immune response. Viruses do not reproduce; instead, they take over host cells and then direct those to reproduce. Many viral infections can be treated with antivirals, which are designed to slow the growth of the virus causing the ailment. Common viruses include the flu virus and the cold virus. Rare forms of viruses can be fatal just like rare bacterial infections, and include encephalitis and HIV.

An antiviral and an antibiotic can usually be taken at the same time if a doctor deems it necessary. This would mostly apply to high risk patients, such as pregnant women and the elderly. Common side effects of antivirals and antibiotics include upset stomach and diarrhea, however in most cases, the benefits far outweigh the risks.

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Discussion Comments
By anon312042 — On Jan 04, 2013

Here's my take from life experience (I'm a 72 year old retired R.N.).

We all know the research about viral vs. bacterial infections, and it is difficult to get an antibiotic prescription for a child or adult today. But when a doctor finally breaks down and writes a prescription for penicillin or erythromycin, almost overnight our infection starts to magically clear up, even though we've been told it won't happen. I think more research is required on this topic.

By tolleranza — On Nov 06, 2011

I think I have only had bacterial infections, no viruses, thank God. I say this because from how I have heard people talk about viruses, like the flu virus, it seems to be more horrible than any bacterial infection I have had.

Bacterial infections are no cup of tea either, but they seem to be easier and quicker to fight than viruses. I usually get urinary tract infections, which are very painful, but usually with antibiotics last for about a week. I do not handle pain well at all, so it is nice to just take a week's worth of pills to take away the pain and the bacterial infection.

By ceilingcat — On Nov 06, 2011

@Azuza - I'm with you. I actually hate taking antibiotics at all. Usually when a doctor prescribes me antibiotics, I try herbal antibiotics first.

I've had really good success with oil of oregano, and olive leaf, which I believe someone else already mentioned. I'm also lucky to live near an herbalist that gives great advice about what to take for what illness.

And, if she thinks your infection is so strong you should go ahead and take the doctor prescribed antibiotics, she'll tell you that too!

By Azuza — On Nov 05, 2011

I never want to take antibiotics if I just have a virus. As the article said, antibiotics don't work on viruses. Period. End of story. I don't know why so many people are so bent on taking antibiotics no matter what!

Actually, yes I do. A lot of people are just uninformed about their health in general. This is why we have super bugs! People can't even be bothered to read the labels on their medicine bottle and just stop taking their medicine when they feel better.

Anyway, I was sick with a virus awhile ago and my doctor mentioned she was surprised I wasn't pushing for her to prescribe me some "medicine." Apparently most people don't want to leave the doctors office without pills in hand!

By burcidi — On Nov 05, 2011

Virus infections always scare me much more than bacterial infections do. I feel like there are many more types of antibiotics available than antivirals. I feel so helpless when one of my kids catch a virus, is coughing and has a fever and all I can do is give a pain reliever and fever reducer.

When it's a bacterial infection and I'm giving antibiotics, I feel much better because I know it's just a matter of time until they get better. Viruses seem to be more dangerous, leading to more serious illnesses and more cases of death which is scary.

Last year, around the time swine flu had just emerged, my daughter had many of the swine flu symptoms and we rushed her to the hospital. They did a blood test which confirmed that it was another virus. This relieved me a little bit but I was still frightened until she got all better. I want my kids to be healthy always, but I almost prefer a bacterial infection rather than a viral one.

By ddljohn — On Nov 04, 2011

@turquoise-- As the article described, there are some major differences between a virus and a bacteria so an antibiotic will not work for a virus.

I believe in antiviral foods and herbs. I have experienced great results with them for many years. It's proven that herbs, roots and spices like ginger, cinnamon, garlic, onion, turmeric, thyme, oregano, mint, basil and teas like green tea have antiviral properties. When you catch a virus, you just need to consume a lot of these herbs and foods high in vitamins like apples, oranges, carrots, broccoli and probiotic yogurt to get better.

That's why I love having cinnamon, ginger and mint tea throughout winter. I also put a pinch of turmeric and lots of onion and garlic when cooking. These natural antivirals are a great way to protect against viruses and boost the immune system.

By turquoise — On Nov 03, 2011

@myharley, @bagley79-- I hate it when doctors refuse to prescribe antibiotics. I know that an antibiotic technically doesn't work on viruses but I'm almost certain that it helps the body fight them and recuperate afterward.

I have a weak immune system and when I catch a virus, I can be sick for months literally. I've noticed that taking a course of antibiotics shortens the time it takes me to get better, even if I do have a virus. But I can't seem to explain this to my doctor who refuses to prescribe antibiotics to me. Last year, I was so sick for weeks and it was around finals time so I had a lot of assignments to finish and exams to study for. I visited the doctor three times and begged for antibiotics. She finally gave in and prescribed a course which I immediately got better after taking.

I don't believe in antiviral herbs and foods, but I believe that antibiotics are beneficial not just against bacteria but against viruses as well.

By golf07 — On Nov 03, 2011

It seems like a lot of people go to the doctor hoping to receive a prescription for an antibiotic when they are sick.

Antibiotics work pretty quickly and are very effective, but it is also easy for your body to build up resistance to them. If I am prescribed the same antibiotic very often, it doesn't work for me anymore.

I have a history of frequent urinary tract infections, and antibiotics do a great job of quickly clearing up this bacteria. If I have too many of these, I don't get antibiotics side effects, but they just don't work for me anymore.

My doctor keeps a close eye on this and makes sure he doesn't over prescribe one so it no longer works the way it should. I think the less often you have to take antibiotics for anything, the better off you are and the faster your body will respond.

By jennythelib — On Nov 02, 2011

@myharley - What's scary is that some doctors *will* prescribe antibiotics, side effects and all, just to get you to go away. They might say you have the beginnings of a sinus infection or some such thing. (Green snot is a sign you might need antibiotics after all.)

One thing that I've had good luck with is zinc lozenges. The evidence is mixed, but I read that there was a fairly recent study which did show a benefit. You start popping zinc lozenges as soon as your cold symptoms start and supposedly it helps shorten the duration. I often "feel like" it shortens my cold, but of course it's hard to tell!

By bagley79 — On Nov 01, 2011

@myharley - You are right - most doctors won't give you an antibiotic if you have a virus. I have had good results taking antiviral supplements, and the one that has been most helpful for me is olive leaf extract.

If you can't find this at a health food store, there are many places where you can order it online.

I have also used essential oils to help with common cold symptoms that antibiotics don't help with either. The essential oils that I like to use for this all have antiviral properties such as oregano and clove.

I try to keep my immune system strong by eating right and exercising, but you never know when you are going to come down with a virus, and I like to know I have some natural alternatives to fight it.

By myharley — On Nov 01, 2011

I have always wondered if some kind of natural products would help when you come down with a virus.

It seems like any time I get the flu or some kind of virus, I have been told that antibiotics won't help and I just need to give it time to run its course.

Of course there are medications you can take that will help with the symptoms, but I think there would be something you could take that would shorten the duration or even help prevent it.

Has anyone found any kind of natural antiviral products that help with something like this?

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