What exactly is a virus? How is it different from other things that make you sick? Learn about these pesky little bugs here.

Polio, small pox, and rabies are all deadly viruses that have been successfully minimized through vaccines. The bad news is that there are many more viruses just as harmful without effective treatments. You may wonder why viruses are so harmful and just what makes them so dangerous to not just humans, but also all living things. With such a variety of viruses, it is frightening to consider how much destruction they are able to create.

What Exactly Is a Virus?

Flu VirusCredit: Big Stock PhotosAccording to WebMD, “a virus is a microscopic organism that invades living cells to reproduce. Many, like influenza, cause illness.” Viruses are often compared to bacteria, but when you put the two organisms side by side, they are vastly different. Viruses are about 1,000 times smaller than bacteria and viruses need another cell to attach to in order to survive and replicate. Very few types of bacteria are harmful and indeed many of them are beneficial to humans, unlike viruses.

How Does a Virus Live and Reproduce?

Once a virus invades another cell, it uses that cell’s energy to take over the normal operations and substitute its own. Viruses can create the perfect hostage takeover of your cells. When a virus gets into a cell, it continuously reproduces itself until the cell it has taken over explodes. Then, the new viruses created in the host cell can infect even more cells. This goes on undetected for some time until you start to feel symptoms of the virus’ infestation of your body. The time between the initial infection and the onset of symptoms is commonly referred to as the incubation period. Viruses attach to cells in areas of the body they like the best, meaning little organisms are able to target the area of your body where they will cause the most destruction.

How Can You Fight Viruses?

Antibiotics are not effective against viruses. The only proven ways to fight viruses is to either vaccinate against them or allow your own body’s immune system to do the fighting for you. Your immune system will fight off viruses once there is enough of the virus in your body for it to be detected, but by then the virus can already be causing mayhem. You may mistake the viral infection for a bacterial infection based on the symptoms, but be very wary of requesting antibiotics from your medical care provider. The antibiotics will not fight the virus and your body still has to fight against the invading organism on its own. Most symptoms you feel when you are ill with a virus are actually the result of your body beginning to fight off infection. Mucous is created to trap the organisms and keep them from spreading as easily, fever occurs when your body is inflamed and fighting off the attack and sore muscles come from your immune system mining your muscles for protein to help kill off the virus. Medical technology and advancements have not yet provided a better way to fight off viral infection. Aside from allowing your body to rest, replenishing your system with food and fluids and possibly medicating yourself to minimize the impact of your symptoms, you must simply let the virus run its course.

What Common Tactics Against Viruses Do Not Work?

The medical field has established that antibiotics are useless against viruses. The one true weapon we have against these organisms is the vaccine. Many different viruses have their own vaccine, like the chicken pox vaccine, the polio vaccine, and others. The annual flu vaccine changes every year because doctors and scientists predict which strain of the virus will have the most prevalence the following flu season. Another common tactic to battle viruses is using over the counter remedies, but all these products do is mask the symptoms while your body continues to fight off the invasion. Making sure you are properly hydrated and are getting enough protein in your diet are two of the most important things you can do, because your body needs these supplies to fuel the fight.

When considering vaccines, keep in mind they are proven safe by countless medical studies. The one concern to remember when vaccinating, however, is allergies to things like eggs. Vaccines are often created in mixtures that contain other common allergens, so if you or your children have been tested and determined to have specific allergies, mention this prior to receiving the vaccine. There are other options to help fight viruses, however. While the injectable vaccine for the annual flu is made with eggs, typically the inhaled version of the vaccine is safe for those with egg allergies. Discuss the options with your doctor to make sure you are fully protected. 

Which Viruses Mutate?

Any virus has the ability to mutate and they do so often. The speed at which a virus mutates depends on the specific genetic material inside the virus, according to CBCNews.com. Viruses mutate because the host cells can build up immunity after an initial exposure. Just because your body fights the virus once does not mean there is no way for that type of virus to infect you in the future due to how quickly the organisms mutate.

These miniscule organisms can bring any living thing to its knees. Some of them can even stay in your system and cause more havoc years later, like the virus that initially causes chicken pox and later manifests as shingles. Even with all the scientific advancements that have created cures to some of the most deadly viruses known, your best defense is common sense. Wash your hands often, cover your mouth when you cough and sneeze, and stay well hydrated. Get your annual flu shot, even though it is not a guarantee you will escape the virus. With these precautions, chances are greater you will stay healthy but they are no guarantee against tenacious viruses.