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What You Need To Know About Viruses

Nancy Simpkins, M.D.
Board-Certified Internist By Nancy Simpkins, M.D.
Board-Certified Internist
Nancy Simpkins, M.D. is a Board Certified Internist with a degree from The Chicago Medical School. In addition to her solo practice, she is also a Medical Advisor for the state of New Jersey.

Viruses are small infectious agents that can only replicate inside living cells. The spread of viruses are unique to each virus (for example, through sneezing, coughing, or bodily fluids). Most viruses are benign in humans and cause a mild infectious reaction but some can be deadly.

Let's explore the world of viruses to help you better understand these infectious agents:

1. What's the difference between viruses and bacteria?

Bacteria are single-celled organisms that have cell walls and therefore can exist outside the human body. Viruses cannot reproduce on their own and need a "host" to spread.

This simple cell wall is the reason that antibiotics do NOT work against viruses. Although people WANT a quick fix when they have a viral upper respiratory infection (cold), there's no antibiotic that works, and it won't shorten the course of the illness.

2. Do most viruses kill people?

Most viruses are benign, meaning that you might get a mild upper respiratory infection or low-grade fever from a virus such as an adenovirus or rhinovirus (most responsible for the common cold). There's much talk about "deadly viruses" lately, but it's important to know that most viral infections are self-limited and not life threatening.

3. But don't Ebola and HIV kill people?

The fear of deadly viruses such as the Ebola virus and human immunodeficiency virus are paralyzing to people. The truth is both of these viruses are only transmitted through blood and body fluids, and they aren't airborne.

So what does this mean? It means casual contact (the subway, work, a restaurant) is no danger. Ebola virus is transmitted person to person, and as of this writing there are two known person-to-person transmissions in the United States, with 76 people still being monitored. There will probably be more patients from this pool of people (health care workers who came in contact with the Ebola patient's bodily fluids). Ebola is not an airborne virus, and though it's natural to be concerned, the general public should not panic.

As far as HIV goes, our knowledge is extensive. We now know what virus it is (HIV-1) and how it is transmitted (person to person with bodily fluids), and we have antiviral drugs (HAART meds) that can keep the virus from replicating in the human body. Unfortunately, we still do not have a vaccine to prevent the disease, but there may be one on the horizon.

4. Should I be worried about enterovirus d68?

This new emergence of enterovirus that's attacking primarily children is frightening to parents and teachers. This common, low-level virus usually doesn't carry serious consequences, meaning a mild two-day infection with low-grade fever and cough. Some children, especially asthmatics, are suffering from severe respiratory and neurological symptoms.

What's the best way to prevent this virus? Hand washing and avoiding other children who are actively sick with fever and cough can greatly reduce your risk.

5. What is the treatment for viral infections?

There are certain viruses that can be controlled with medication (for example, HIV with HARRT meds). Most viral infections have no treatment except for supportive treatment like fluids, oxygen, and other vital system support. Antibiotics are useless with viruses and should not be prescribed.

6. How to prevent viral infections?

Wash your hands, wash your hands and — did I mention? — wash your hands! Soap and water are your best defense. If they aren't available, hand sanitizer is a good alternative. Remember, the virus gets on your hand, then you touch your mouth or your eyes, and boom, the virus gets in your system.

7. What about surfaces?

Most viruses can live on surfaces such as counters, desks, and phones. So washing down your work area with either soap and water or a diluted bleach and water solution is a great way to reduce your risk of acquiring a pathogenic virus.

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