What Kills Bacteria and Viruses—And What Doesn’t

Looking to disinfect your house and your stuff during the coronavirus pandemic? Here’s what you need to know about how to kill germs.

In the time of coronavirus, there are many theories floating around about what does and doesn’t kill the virus and other germs that can cause illness. We’re here with the definitive guide so you can feel confident that your house is truly clean—or if it isn’t, that you’ll know what to do.

Viruses vs. bacteria

SARS coronavirus

Both viruses and bacteria can cause illness, but they don’t cause the same illnesses. And while viruses are generally bad, there are both “bad” bacteria and “good” bacteria, such as the kind that live in our gut and digest food and that go into making things like cheese and yogurt. But whereas bacteria are living organisms, viruses are not; instead they require a live host, such as a human, in order to proliferate. That means that getting rid of bacteria and virus germs—whether in our bodies or in our homes—requires different methods. To treat a bacterial infection such as strep throat or a urinary tract infection, for example, doctors will prescribe antibiotics. To treat a viral infection, doctors won’t prescribe antibiotics because they’ll have no effect. Instead, doctors advise rest and drink fluids for a virus if it’s mild, and antiviral medications for cases that are more severe. We can get vaccinated to prevent both viral diseases such as chickenpox, and bacterial diseases such as tetanus. When washing hands and cleaning our surfaces, there are some differences in what works against bacteria vs. viruses.

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