Tips for Identifying the Flu vs Bacterial Infection


A runny nose, cough, sore throat, and mild fever – your child is clearly not feeling too great, and you want nothing more than to help. But what exactly is the issue? Is it the all-too dreaded flu, or worse, a bacterial infection such as pneumonia?

Depending on a few factors, your child could be dealing with either a viral infection or a bacterial infection. Being able to identify which of the two you’re dealing with can go a long way toward helping you not only act quickly, but also save time and money, and not just on treatment. Children miss approximately 22 million school days and parents miss roughly 20 million work days each year due to children’s colds alone.

Difference Between Flu and Viral Infections

The short (and obvious) answer is viral infections are caused by viruses, and bacterial infections are caused by bacteria. Illnesses like influenza, or “the flu,” and upper respiratory infections (URIs) fall under the category of viral infections, while illnesses such as pneumonia, sinusitis, and ear infections are considered bacterial infections.

Viral and bacterial infections often have similar symptoms, but they’re treated very differently. Knowing the difference – and what to look for – is key.

The Flu and Other Viral Infections Symptoms

For starters, viral infections are often identified by symptoms such as a runny nose, cough, minor fever, sore throat, and trouble sleeping. The common cold and URIs are the more standard of the viral infections. These types of infections cannot be treated by antibiotics or anti-viral medications. Rather, you’re better off simply managing the symptoms until the immune system fights it off.

Influenza features many of the same symptoms as viral infections like URIs, in addition to body aches and a more severe fever. However, influenza, as opposed to most URIs, can be treated using antiviral medicines, as long as the virus was detected within the first 48 hours. Depending on the age of the patient, one or two flu vaccines during a given year can help them remain flu-free.

Parents, it’s worth mentioning that when it comes to URIs, children suffer from URI symptoms longer and develop URIs more frequently than adults. These symptoms may last anywhere from 10 to 14 days, so be sure to keep an eye out for improvement during that timeframe.

Bacterial Infection Symptoms

Many bacterial infections are considered “secondary infections,” which means the infection was viral, but due to exposure to bacteria, it became a bacterial infection.

One easy way to get an idea if a viral infection is now bacterial is to monitor symptom changes. If symptoms persist for more than 10-14 days, the fever is higher than that of a viral fever and the fever is getting worse before it’s getting better, it may have gone bacterial.

Here are a handful of common bacterial infections and what to look for:

  • Sinusitis: Runny nose lasting longer than 10-14 days
  • Ear infection: Ear pain accompanied by new onset fever and several days of a runny nose
  • Pneumonia: Persistent cough, stomach ache, or difficulty breathing
  • Urinary tract infection: Fever without an easily identifiable source of infection (more common in girls and boys who are not circumcised)

Other symptoms to watch for if you suspect bacterial infection include dehydration, difficulty when breathing, decreased energy levels or responsiveness, little to no improvement in 3-5 days, and any child with a fever who is under three months of age.

If you’d like to assist in diagnosing these illnesses or discovering new treatment methods for future patients, volunteer to participate in a clinical trial today.

Contact St. Hope Foundation Healthcare Providers for a Diagnosis

There are a variety of tests to help you accurately determine if your child has the flu or a bacterial infection. That’s why it’s important they get properly diagnosed by a pediatrician. Get help today from the caring doctors at St. Hope Foundation by contacting us today.