Find Information About:

Drugs & Supplements

Get information and reviews on prescription drugs, over-the-counter medications, vitamins, and supplements. Search by name or medical condition.

Pill Identifier

Pill Identifier

Having trouble identifying your pills?

Enter the shape, color, or imprint of your prescription or OTC drug. Our pill identification tool will display pictures that you can compare to your pill.

Get Started

My Medicine

Save your medicine, check interactions, sign up for FDA alerts, create family profiles and more.

Get Started

WebMD Health Experts and Community

Talk to health experts and other people like you in WebMD's Communities. It's a safe forum where you can create or participate in support groups and discussions about health topics that interest you.

  • Second Opinion

    Second Opinion

    Read expert perspectives on popular health topics.

  • Community


    Connect with people like you, and get expert guidance on living a healthy life.

Got a health question? Get answers provided by leading organizations, doctors, and experts.

Get Answers

Sign up to receive WebMD's award-winning content delivered to your inbox.

Sign Up

Font Size

Bacterial and Viral Infections

Bacterial and viral infections have many things in common. Both types of infections are caused by microbes -- bacteria and viruses, respectively -- and spread by things such as:

  • 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 such as fleas and ticks.

Microbes can also cause:

Recommended Related to


Important It is possible that the main title of the report Measles is not the name you expected. Please check the synonyms listing to find the alternate name(s) and disorder subdivision(s) covered by this report.

Read the Measles article > >

  • Acute infections, which are short-lived.
  • Chronic infections, which can last for weeks, months, or a lifetime.
  • Latent infections, which may not cause symptoms at first but can reactivate over a period of months and years.

Most importantly, bacterial and viral infections, can cause mild, moderate, and severe diseases.

Throughout history, millions of people have died of diseases such as bubonic plague or the Black Death, which is caused by Yersinia pestis bacteria, and smallpox, which is caused by the variola virus. In recent times, viral infections have been responsible for two major pandemics: the 1918-1919 “Spanish flu” epidemic that killed 20-40 million people, and the ongoing HIV/AIDS epidemic that killed an estimated 1.5 million people worldwide in 2013 alone.

Bacterial and viral infections can cause similar symptoms such as coughing and sneezing, fever, inflammation, vomiting, diarrhea, fatigue, and cramping -- all of which are ways the immune system tries to rid the body of infectious organisms. But bacterial and viral infections are dissimilar in many other important respects, most of them due to the organisms' structural differences and the way they respond to medications.

The Differences Between Bacteria and Viruses

Although bacteria and viruses are both too small to be seen without a microscope, they're as different as giraffes and goldfish.

Bacteria are relatively complex, single-celled creatures with a rigid wall and a thin, rubbery membrane surrounding the fluid inside the cell. They can reproduce on their own. Fossilized records show that bacteria have existed for about 3.5 billion years, and bacteria can survive in different environments, including extreme heat and cold, radioactive waste, and the human body.

Most bacteria are harmless, and some actually help by digesting food, destroying disease-causing microbes, fighting cancer cells, and providing essential nutrients. Fewer than 1% of bacteria cause diseases in people.

Hot Topics

WebMD Video: Now Playing

Click here to wach video: Dirty Truth About Hand Washing

Which sex is the worst about washing up? Why is it so important? We’ve got the dirty truth on how and when to wash your hands.

Click here to watch video: Dirty Truth About Hand Washing

Popular Slideshows & Tools on WebMD

disciplining a boy
Types, symptoms, causes.
Remember your finger
Are You Getting More Forgetful?
fruit drinks
Eat these to think better.
No gym workout
Moves to help control blood sugar.
acupuncture needle on shoulder
10 tips to look and feel good.
Close up of eye
12 reasons you're distracted.
birth control pills
Which kind is right for you?
embarrassed woman
Do you feel guilty after eating?
Epinephrine Injection using Auto-Injector Syringe
Life-threatening triggers.
woman biting a big ice cube
Habits that wreck your teeth.
pacemaker next to xray
Treatment options.
caregiver with parent
10 tips for daily life.

Pollen counts, treatment tips, and more.

It's nothing to sneeze at.

Loading ...

Sending your email...

This feature is temporarily unavailable. Please try again later.


Now check your email account on your mobile phone to download your new app.

Women's Health Newsletter

Find out what women really need.