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Viral or bacterial: how to tell the difference

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It is officially the cold and flu season. Nobody likes to see a doctor when they are sick, simply to be diagnosed with a viral illness, and sent home with instructions to drink more fluids.

Knowing the difference between a viral and bacterial illness may save you time and money. Here are four tips to help you determine when an illness could be viral or bacterial, and perhaps when to see a doctor.

Location. A viral illness typically causes wide-spread symptoms. A bacteria usually causes site-specific symptoms, such as those involving the sinuses, throat, or chest.

Phlegm color. A virus may produce clear or cloudy mucous, if any. A bacterial illness typically causes colored phlegm (green, yellow, bloody or brown-tinged).

Duration of illness. Most viral illnesses last 2 to 10 days. A bacterial illness commonly will last longer than 10 days.

Fever. A viral infection may or may not cause a fever. A bacterial illness notoriously causes a fever (normal body temperature is 98.6, a fever is considered greater than 100 degrees Fahrenheit).

If you are diagnosed with a bacterial illness, typical antibiotic treatment is 10 to 14 days. Once you start the antibiotic, you should begin to feel better in about 24 to 48 hours and a person is no longer considered contagious once on an antibiotic for 24 hours and any fever has been resolved for 24 hours. If your symptoms do not resolve, or if at any time you develop a severe headache or neck pain, persistent nausea / vomiting or a fever, be sure to see a doctor promptly. 

Of course there are many alternative options to antibiotics.  See your local naturopath to discuss immune supportive herbs, homeopathic and lifestyle changes.

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