Matchbox that can tell a virus from a bacterial infection and help avoid misdiagnoses

Almost everyone knows if you go along to your doctor with a virus infection you’re not going to come away with ­antibiotics.

We don’t treat viruses with antibiotics because they’re ­ineffective.

Antibiotics are ­reserved for bacterial infections.

But if your symptoms (runny nose, headache, sore throat, cough) could equally well be caused by a virus or a bacterium, how does your doctor distinguish between the two and decide if you need antibiotics or not?

And in doing so help to prevent the overuse of antibiotics and the ­emergence of superbugs?

Not easy. Well, up to now, anyway.

But a multidisciplinary team from the University of Leeds has come up with a chip in a matchbox-size device that can tell from a pinprick if your ­symptoms are viral or bacterial.

The chip is based on the fact that the body responds to a virus or a bacterium with the release of ­damage-limiting chemicals. Lucky for us the chemicals released by viruses and bacteria are different, and that difference is the basis of the test.

The Leeds project involves groups of engineers, biologists and clinicians at the university, and from a drop of blood, the chip can identify chemicals that are released by the body when it has been infected by bacteria.

In short, it can distinguish when a person is suffering from a bacterial or a viral infection. The good news is it should help to avoid misdiagnoses, and, at the same time, the use of unnecessary antibiotics and the spread of resistant bugs.

Tests using the chip have already been carried out so the Leeds ­scientists hope to have a working device ready in five years or so.

“The next phase will be a large-scale clinical trial,” says project leader Professor Christoph Walti, who stresses the chip won’t tell a GP which type of bacterium is infecting a patient. “It will merely tell them that they have not been infected by a virus, and that antibiotics might well be appropriate. On the other hand, if the chip shows you have a virus, the doctor will know not to give you antibiotics.”

It strikes me this test that ­distinguishes between viral and ­bacterial infections could go a long way to curbing the explosion of ­bacterial resistance that could endanger our lives in the not-too distant future.

It can’t come too soon.