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What do doctors mean when they say ‘viral’

SAMAA | - Posted: Dec 6, 2019 | Last Updated: 6 months ago
Posted: Dec 6, 2019 | Last Updated: 6 months ago
What do doctors mean when they say ‘viral’

‘Tis the season of coughing, sneezing and sniffling. Karachi may not freeze in winters but it doesn’t mean that people here aren’t diagnosed with season-related diseases. Every other person you know may have a version of some viral infection. But what exactly is that?

Simply put, it is an infection caused by a virus.

This can range from mild to severe; with mild ones being the common cold and severe ones including influenza (the flu), dengue, hepatitis, and HIV.

“The term is usually used for infections in which there is no clear site of infection [that is, it does not look like a urine or chest infection) with mild symptoms,” said Dr Rehana Siddiqui, associate professor and head of epidemiology and biostatistics at the Aga Khan University.

Most often, it refers to mild respiratory infections, such as a runny nose with a mild cough or sore throat, but sometimes it is also used for fever with no other symptoms, she added. These infections are self-limiting and do not require a course of antibiotics.

Then what do you need antibiotics for?

Antibiotics are supposed to be used for bacterial infections, only. But how can you tell whether your infection is caused by a virus or bacteria?

Dr Siddiqui and Dr Faisal Mahmood, an infectious disease expert from AKU, explained the differences to SAMAA Digital.

A mild viral illness will have symptoms such as a runny nose, cough, low-grade fever, sore throat, and difficulty in sleeping. It can last for 10 to 14 days in children.  No antibiotics or anti-viral medicines will speed up recovery from the common cold.

Influenza is also a viral infection with similar symptoms but it will also cause severe body aches, high fever, and lethargy. The experts say antiviral medicines can help.

Bacterial infections, meanwhile usually cause ear, nose and throat infections and pneumonia. They can be because of secondary infection. Symptoms will include high grade fever that worsens instead of improving and will last for more than 10 to 14 days. These infections require antibiotics for treatment. However, it is important to go to a doctor instead of self-diagnosing and self-medicating.

The antibiotics need to be prescribed and taken for the whole duration of the dose. Do not stop taking them before the course ends, otherwise, the bacteria will develop resistance to them and become more difficult to treat.

Home remedies 

It is true that you can sleep off a viral infection. Dr Siddiqui and Dr Mahmood advised lots of rest, fluids such as water, juices and soups and over-the-counter medicines like acetaminophen or ibuprofen for fever and pain.

Good hygiene practices are absolutely necessary. Washing hands, wearing masks, avoiding pollutants and using a cleanroom humidifier will also help.

When should you go to a doctor?

If the fever lasts for more than a week and is higher than 101.5°F then it’s time for a medical intervention. Similarly, if there is difficulty in breathing, chest congestion, rashes of any sort and recurring fever, a doctor needs to be consulted.

This holds true especially for groups that have low immunity such as the elderly, diabetics, pregnant women, malnourished children and those with HIV, Dr Siddiqui added.

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