Bacterial vs. Viral Skin Infections: Symptoms & Treatments

April 3, 2024

woman discussing viral and bacterial skin infections with dermatologist

Skin infections are extremely common, and in most cases, they are easily addressed with proper care from a skilled dermatologist. According to Dr. Taylor Dickerson of U.S. Dermatology Partners in Tyler and Greenville, Texas, “We treat both bacterial and viral infections regularly, and while it’s important to understand some of the basic differences between the two, your dermatologist will provide an accurate diagnosis and personalized treatment options to ensure you’re comfortable as you heal from either form of skin infection.” Keep reading to learn more from Dr. Dickerson about the differences between viral and bacterial skin infections as well as their symptoms and treatment options.

Understanding Bacterial Skin Infections

Skin is covered in bacteria. In fact, many types of skin bacteria serve an important role. They keep harmful bacteria in check, and some research indicates that native bacteria strengthen the immune system’s ability to fight infection. Bacterial infections often develop when there’s a breach in the skin’s protective barrier, such as burns, cuts, scrapes, or other injuries. Very dry skin also leaves individuals at risk for infection.

Common warning signs of bacterial skin infection include:

  • Redness
  • Inflammation
  • Area of skin that feels painful to touch
  • Bumps or lumps
  • Skin that feels warm
  • A sore that seeps fluid

There are several different types of skin infections. Some of the most common include:

  • Cellulitis – One of the most serious forms of bacterial infections, cellulitis can spread quickly, and it can be life-threatening without appropriate treatment. If you notice a warm, red, tender rash that’s spreading fast and covers large patches of skin, you may be dealing with cellulitis and need to be seen urgently.
  • Folliculitis – A form of skin infection that occurs when bacteria accumulate within hair follicles. This can occur due to inflammation caused by injury or the use of certain products that clog hair follicles. Furuncles, commonly called boils, are larger infected follicles. Carbuncles occur when infection spreads beneath the skin between follicles.
  • Impetigo – This is a very contagious form of bacterial skin infection. It’s very common among young children. It usually appears as small sores that rupture and leave behind a yellow crust.
  • MRSA – Methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) is a more difficult-to-treat bacterial skin infection because of its resistance to common antibiotics. It’s important to work closely with a dermatologist or other medical professional to treat MRSA and its symptoms.

Exploring Viral Skin Infections

Viral infections, like bacterial infections, occur when a virus breaches the skin barrier. According to Dr. Dickerson, “Viral skin infections may vary widely based on the type of virus. In general, you may notice skin symptoms like bumps, redness, and itching, but this may be coupled with systemic side effects like fever, headache, and fatigue. If you’re concerned about a possible skin infection, schedule a visit with your dermatologist as soon as possible.”

Common viral skin infections include:

  • Cold sores – A form of herpes simplex viral infection that causes the development of small blisters, most often on lips, cheeks, or chin. This contagious skin infection can be spread through skin-to-skin contact. Treatment will focus on alleviating symptoms and preventing recurrence.
  • Chickenpox – Common among small children, this varicella-zoster virus is highly contagious. It appears as small, itchy bumps or blisters on the skin. It may also cause fever, fatigue, sore throat, and other whole-body side effects. Vaccination is available to prevent the contraction of this virus.
  • Measles – This condition was once nearly eradicated, but a recent decline in vaccination rates has led to more cases. Symptoms are similar to a cold and include runny nose, coughing, sneezing, watery or swollen eyes, fever, as well as aches and pains. After the first few days of experiencing these symptoms, people with measles develop clusters of small red or brown spots on the skin. These spots start on the head and neck and spread down the body.
  • Shingles – Herpes zoster virus is a reactivation of the chickenpox virus, so anyone who has had chickenpox is at risk for shingles. There are vaccines available to prevent severe symptoms if a shingles outbreak does occur. When shingles occurs, it causes fatigue and fever in addition to severe painful red blisters that occur on a unilateral side of the body. Involvement of the head and neck requires urgent evaluation.

Differentiating Between Bacterial and Viral Skin Infections

The main difference between bacterial and viral skin infections is the extent of symptoms. Bacterial infections typically begin focused on one location, while viral infections can be associated with systemic symptoms. Chickenpox, measles, and herpes zoster (shingles) are all examples of viral infections that impact the entire system but have severe side effects that develop on the skin.

Treatment Approaches for Skin Infections

When it comes to treatment, the type of skin infection plays an essential role. According to Dr. Dickerson, “A dermatologist will carefully examine your skin and run tests as necessary to ensure they provide an accurate diagnosis and the most effective treatment plan. In most cases, topical treatments to address symptoms are prescribed. For itching, we may recommend cold compresses. Oral and/or topical antibiotics are prescribed for bacterial skin infections. Treatment for viral skin infections may include prescription antivirals, but in most cases, the best course of action is to address specific symptoms as the viral infection runs its course. Your dermatologist will partner with you to create a personalized treatment plan that will ensure you heal fully and comfortably.”

Prevention Tips for Both Bacterial and Viral Skin Infections

Prevention is the key to keeping skin healthy. Some tips to prevent bacterial and viral skin infections include:

  • Wash your hands – Make sure you’re adequately washing your hands using warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds.
  • Wash wounds – Clean cuts, bug bites, burns, and other skin injuries as soon as they occur. Keep wounds clean as they heal.
  • Treat injured skin – Use a petrolatum-based ointment and keep the damaged skin covered as it heals.
  • Avoid contact – Try not to touch surfaces or make skin-to-skin contact with individuals who have skin infections or show signs of them.
  • Don’t share – Sharing is caring, but if you’re trying to avoid skin infections, don’t share clothing items, linens, or skincare products that make direct contact with other people’s skin.

Don’t Guess – Ask a Professional

Dr. Dickerson says, “While it’s important to be knowledgeable and aware of the effects of various skin conditions, including viral and bacterial skin infections, your dermatologist is the expert. If you notice any of the warning signs discussed in this blog, seek out a professional to provide an accurate diagnosis and effective treatment plan.”

Schedule a Visit

If you’ve noticed a lesion, rash, or other irregularity that may indicate a skin infection, reach out to a dermatologist to receive treatment as soon as possible. If you want to work with the team at U.S. Dermatology Partners, it’s quick and easy to get started. Just take a moment to complete our online scheduling request. Once a local team member receives your request, they’ll be in touch to finalize the details of your upcoming visit.

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