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Difference Between Bacteria and Virus

Updated on February 2, 2011

We often think of bacteria and viruses as causing us diseases and colds. This is true. Viruses causes both colds and flus. Although most symptoms of colds and flus are the same, flus are usually accompanied by a fever; whereas colds are not.

Most viruses are harmful to us. HIV/AIDS and the Spanish Flu are caused by a viral infection. Polio, smallpox, chickenpox, measles are all caused by viruses. Vaccines are effective in preventing certain viral infections. That is why children are vaccinated against certain viral diseases. That is why people get flu vaccine shots every flu season.

Some viruses can contribute to the cause of cancer by causing genetic changes in the cell that makes them more susceptible to becoming cancerous.

Bacteria also can be harmful to us. The bubonic plague for example is caused by a bacteria. Antibiotics can be use to treat bacterial infections. But they only work on bacteria and does not work on viruses. The overuse of antibiotics contributes to the evolution of drug resistant bacteria.

Some afflictions such as pneumonia, meningitis, and diarrhea, can be caused by either virus or bacteria.

Whereas most viruses are harmful; only certain bacteria are harmful. Fewer than 1% of bacteria causes disease in humans. That is good news because there can be 100,000 bacteria on one square centimeter of skin.

There are also some bacteria in our gut that are helpful in digestion.

Size and Structure

Although both bacteria and virus are too small to be seen with the eyes. Virus are much smaller than bacteria. Bacteria have typical length from 1 to 10 microns (one micron is 1/1000 of a millimeter). Viruses can be as small as 0.1 to 0.4 microns.

Bacteria are single cell organisms. They have a rigid wall membrane that surrounds its cytoplasm. They can have shapes that look like balls, rods, or spirals. They can survive in a multitude of environments including extreme heat and cold. They can grow and reproduce on surfaces outside living bodies.

Viruses simply consists of genetic material (such as RNA or DNA) surrounded by a thin protein coat. Viruses reproduce by hijacking the host cell's genetic material. That is why it loves to be inside host cells. Most viruses does not survive well outside a host. The HIV virus for example lives only a few seconds outside a host and dies instantly upon exposure to sunlight.

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