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What’s the difference between bacteria and viruses?

What's the difference between viruses and bacteria?

In a dental setting, infection control involves more than cleanliness. Dental professionals and their surgical instruments are constantly exposed to oral tissues, saliva and blood that could potentially carry a bacterial or viral infection. Procedures to protect employees and patients from these germs include wearing gloves, masks and eye protection, and strict sterilisation and cleaning protocols. 

Both bacteria and viruses are invisible to the naked eye, but they’re all around us. For this reason, it’s important to understand the difference between a viral and bacterial infection to ensure that appropriate infection control processes are followed. 

Understanding bacteria

Bacteria are tiny single-celled organisms with all the necessary components to grow and reproduce. They can survive on their own, either inside or outside a host body. Strep throat, ear infections and urinary tract infections (UTI) are some of the most common bacterial infections. 

Bacteria generally enter the body via:

  • Cuts
  • Contaminated food or water
  • Close contact with someone who’s infected
  • Inhalation of droplets from an infected person’s cough or sneeze
  • Contact with contaminated surfaces (taps, toilets, light switches, etc.)

Bacteria can be beneficial – for example, some gut bacteria support the digestion of food – or disease-causing (pathogenic). Pathogenic bacteria are responsible for a range of infections, most of which can be successfully treated with antibiotics – although antibiotic-resistant strains are starting to emerge.

Immunisation is available to prevent many serious bacterial diseases such as tetanus, whooping cough and meningococcal disease.     

Some bacteria can form spores, which means they build a protective layer around themselves that’s very resistant to high temperatures, radiation and chemical agents. Bacterial spores can only be destroyed by sterilisation.

Understanding viruses

Viruses are much smaller than bacteria and can’t reproduce independently – they must hijack a healthy host cell to build new copies of themselves. 

Viruses are spread from one person to another by:

  • Coughs
  • Sneezes
  • Vomit
  • Bites from infected animals or insects
  • Exposure to infected bodily fluids (such as during sex or sharing needles)

Viruses are easy to destroy outside a host; but, once a person is infected, a virus is difficult to kill as they don’t respond to antibiotics. The best form of protection from a viral infection is vaccination, but some viruses (like the common cold) are capable of mutating from one person to the next. In this scenario, vaccination is incredibly difficult as the virus has often changed by the time a vaccine has been developed. Influenza, measles, chickenpox and, more recently, COVID-19, are examples of viral infections that can be vaccinated against

What’s the difference between bacteria and viruses?

The main difference between bacteria and viruses is that bacteria are living organisms while viruses are not. Bacteria can live inside or outside a body; viruses need a host cell to survive and reproduce.

bacteria vs virus IG updated 01 scaled 1

Can illnesses be caused by both bacterial and viral infections?

Yes. Some illnesses, such as ear and sinus infections and bronchitis, can be caused by either bacteria or viruses – and sometimes both simultaneously. Tonsilitis is an infection that’s commonly detected in a dental setting that can be either bacterial or viral. Bacterial tonsilitis should be treated with antibiotics; viral tonsilitis doesn’t require antibiotics but symptoms can be relived with pain relief such as numbing lozenges and ibuprofen. 

mouth shouwing difference between virus and bacteria infection

How to control bacteria and viruses

Disinfectants are effective in killing both bacteria and viruses outside the body, but they generally won’t kill bacterial spores. In a dental setting, disinfectants should be used in conjunction with detergents to ensure that germs are killed and removed. 


Once inside the body, a bacterial infection can be controlled using antibiotics that target a particular enzyme unique to that bacterium. However, viruses pose a considerable challenge to the body’s immune system because they hide inside a host’s cells. Vaccination with antiviral drugs prepares the immune system to recognise and kill that specific viral infection.

Infection control products to protect against bacterial and viral infections

Gienic stocks a comprehensive range of infection control products to protect dental clinics against bacteria and viruses. We offer a best price guarantee, same-day dispatch and free delivery for orders over $350.

Shop our range of infection control products or call (03) 9008 6358 to source quality infection control products at affordable prices. We pride ourselves on holding excellent stock levels across all products and delivering great customer service every time.

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