Viruses, Colds, Bacteria—Oh My!

Dr. Brown's tips for keeping your house free of colds all year long

Dr. Vivien Brown, MD, joins us for another blog post about healthy pareting
Editor’s Note: We’d like to welcome Dr. Vivien Brown, MD, back as a guest blogger to LifeTales. Dr. Brown is a family physician in Toronto, Canada and a well-known national and international speaker on women’s health. She’s also the author of A Woman’s Guide to Healthy Aging: Seven essential ways to keep you vital, happy and strong.

Flu season might be winding down in thenorthern hemisphere as we move into our spring and summer seasons, but it’sjust picking up in the southern hemisphere with the onset of winter.

Global air travel also makes it easyfor colds, flu, bronchitis, sore throats, and many sinus and ear infections tosurface at home, school and our workplaces year-round.

So how should you keep your family safe?

Think twice before asking for antibiotics

Many people assume that getting sickmeans they need an antibiotic to get better.

In fact, takingantibiotics for colds and other viral illnesses not only won’t work, it has dangerousside effects—over time. Globally, overexposure toantibiotics is producing drug-resistantbacteria that don’t respond to antibiotics that may have worked in the past.

Increasingly, I find myself prescribingantibiotics in increasingly higher doses to help my patients recover whensuffering from serious bacterial infections.

Antibiotic resistance is a widespreadproblem, and one that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) inthe US call “one of the world’s most pressing public health problems.” Withtime, bacteria that were once highly responsive to antibiotics have become moreand more resistant.

Among those that are becoming harderto treat are pneumococcal infections such as:

  • Pneumonia
  • Ear infections
  • Sinus infections
  • Meningitis

What's the difference between bacteria and viruses?

Although bacteria and viruses areboth too small to be seen without a microscope, they’re as different asgiraffes and goldfish. 

Both types of infections are causedby microbes — bacteria and viruses, respectively — and spread by things such ascoughing and sneezing, contact with infected people, especially through kissingand sex, contact with contaminated surfaces, food, and water, contact withinfected creatures, including pets, livestock, and insects such as fleas andticks.

But the infections are dissimilar in many other important respects, most of them due to the organisms’ structural differences and the way they respond to medications.

When should you ride out a cold or see a doctor?

A white ceramic cup with a metal spoon, a paper box of tissues and a pair of upside-down glasses imply it's flu time in this household.
Oh, we've all been there. When a cold hits, it's time to bunker down, grab the tissues, get some tea and wait for your symptoms to pass.

While viruses and bacteria can cause similar symptoms, concerns that suggest a serious infection may include:

  • Fever and chills
  • Muscle aches and pains
  • Decreased appetite
  • Overwhelming fatigue

Other symptoms, such as sore throatsand swollen glands, are more generalized and may need an expert opinion todecide how best to proceed. They can occur with either bacterial or viralinfections.

If your infection, sore throat, coughor flu-like illness is overwhelming and feels like the worst infection you canrecall in some time, you should always go and get checked by your health careprofessional!

Another indicator that you need further attention is not seeing improvement or easing of your symptoms within a couple of days.

How to safely take antibiotics

A patient receives a vaccine shot in a medical office.
Getting the flu shot is one way to reduce your likelihood of contracting a serious illness, like the flu.

So what should you do? To increaseyour bacterial resistance and minimize your odds of getting sick, keep thesetips in mind:

  1. Takeantibiotics only for bacterial infections.It’s a good idea to let milder illnesses, especially those caused by viruses,to run their course. This approach helps prevent antibiotic-resistant germsfrom developing. But leave it to your doctor’s discretion to decide if your illnessis “mild” or not.
  2. Take antibiotics for the full amountof time your doctor prescribes. Anything less won’t treat the bacterialinfection.
  3. Never use antibiotics left over fromother illnesses. HealthCanada has guidelines for how to safely dispose ofantibiotics.
  4. Help fight antibiotic resistance and preventinfections from spreading by frequently washing your hands and getting immunized,such as a flu shot and pneumococcal vaccine.

Ask your healthcare professional about over-the-counter treatment options that may help reduce your symptoms.

General suggestions for dealing with mild viral illnesses

For colds like these, the advice yougot from your parents is likely the best:

  • Drink more fluids.
  • Get plenty of rest.
  • Use a cool-mist vaporizer or salinenasal spray to relieve congestion.
  • Soothe your throat with crushed ice, sore throat spray, or lozenges foradults.
  • Don’t give lozenges to young children! Try Popsicles or lots of coldliquid to drink.

We’d love to hear from you

Did you have a memorable illness or cold as a child? How about your kids? We’d love to hear about your journey. Drop us a line at

Do you have professional expertise of value to families? Would you like your expertise featured on our blog? Send your pitch to We can’t respond to all inquiries, but we’ll be in touch if there’s a fit.

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