What are Viral Infections?
Viral infections are a broad spectrum of diseases that carry with the a number of odd, frequently dissimilar symptoms. Viral infections are distinct from bacterial infections in several ways, and they can inflict even more diverse symptoms and conditions on those they infect.
Viral infections operate by invading the cells. Virii are not alive in the same way that bacteria are. They could be thought of as pieces of biological data. They penetrate and invade cells, which hijacks the cell’s systems. This results in the alteration of the cell’s function, which can produce a wide variety of symptoms. Some of the most common viral infections that afflict the skin are chicken pox and shingles, both of which originate from the same infection.
Who gets Viral Infections?
Everyone is susceptible to viral infections, but individual viruses may have different individual rules. Virus immunity is a major factor that comes into play when it comes to virus vulnerability. Most individuals become immune to a virus after a single exposure. It is generally thought that one can only get mononucleosis, chicken pox and similar ailments only once. The reason for this is because they are caused by viruses. However, the truth of the matter is that it is still possible to get them a second time—just far less likely, as the body’s immune system grows more more adept at fighting them off. Thus, those that find their immune systems compromised are the most likely to suffer from a viral infection. Those that work with large groups of people are also more likely to suffer from viruses, especially those in face-to-face customer service.
Because the strength of the immune system and the presence or lack of immunity is a factor, age plays a major coincidental role in virus susceptibility. The elderly are more likely to suffer from viruses because they are more likely to have compromised immune systems that leave them vulnerable to viruses. Children, at the same time, are more likely to suffer from viruses because they have not yet developed the immunity and natural defenses that can hold viral agents at bay. Viruses are extremely common in human society, so contracting them is simply a matter of being out in human society without the appropriate defenses.
What causes Viral Infections?
Viral infections are caused by viruses, which is obvious. Viruses infiltrate the system. They are not complicated, although they may be complex—viruses consist of a simple protein shell which protects a sort of DNA. They infiltrate individual cells. This causes the cells to replicate and produce more of the virus. The immune system then has to identify these virus cells and destroy them as they present themselves. Over time, the immune system grows more and more adept at destroying these cells as they appear. Eventually, there isn’t any chance for the virii to take hold, and thus no symptoms can occur.
This grows muddled, however. While all viruses do the same thing, there are multiple ways to receive a viral infection. Most frequently, viruses are shared through human contact. Most viruses are transmissible through fluid contact. Fluid contact is the touching of liquid to an absorbent membrane. This is the case for viral sexually transmitted diseases of various sorts. However, some are also transmissible through skin contact. This is the case, unfortunately, for herpes zoster. Herpes zoster is not related as-such to the sexually transmitted infection, but is the virus that causes chicken pox and potentially shingles. Rare viruses are transmissible through the air. Airborne viruses can be particularly scary, and include various forms of influenza.
The nature of viruses means that most of them never actually affect the body. A significant number of them are beaten down by the immune system’s passive defenses before they ever get the chance to spread. One can then be exposed to the same virus again and again, and the quantity will not matter: because the body is already immune to the virus on its own, no amount of exposure will ever produce an infection because the virus will simply be thrown back out like so much trash. Even more intense infections can be resisted. Chicken pox has a tendency to infect but once. Mononucleosis is the same. Second cases and reinfections of either are exceedingly rare because the body can fight them off. This is actually true of all viruses, however, but this perception is not pervasive, for two simple reasons: the flu and the cold. Influenza and the rhinovirus are perhaps the most common forms of viral infection. Anyone who deals with people on a regular basis will eventually catch one of the bugs that goes around and be stuck with the symptoms. However, influenza and the rhinovirus are common occurrences, and one certainly doesn’t suffer from one of them in their entire lifespan. However, you may have noticed the tendency for one to suffer from a particular bug only once, and then be perfectly safe around other individuals sick with the same thing. The truth of the matter is that viruses can mutate.
There are two things that can cause reinfection of an ailment one has had in the past if that ailment is viral. The first of these is immunosuppression. If one has an immune system trained and prepared to deal with a virus, they will not suffer the effects of that virus, because their body is only going to snowball into greater and greater effectiveness. It takes a lapse in these natural defenses for the virus to have any significant impact once again. The second and more serious opportunity for a virus to reinfect is mutation.
When a virus mutates, it changes in some way. The ‘data’ that it carries is altered. This means a few things. First, it means that the virus may carry different symptoms or qualities. It may grow somewhat more severe. It may now cause headaches. It may replicate faster. Perhaps most dangerously, a virus that was once only transmissible through fluid contact could become airborne; the mutation of a virus is an open-ended gamble of effectively random chance. Most virus mutations don’t get very far along at all, and the viruses that we have today are simply those that were bad enough and resilient enough to remain persistently relevant over the courses of thousands and thousands of years throughout various species and the rise and fall of various civilizations. But almost all virus mutations carry something in common: they allow the virus to slip through our barriers again.
The reason one can catch a cold or the flu more than once is because the rhinovirus and influenza virus are airborne. They transmit rapidly, they replicate rapidly, and this allows it to mutate much more rapidly. The cold and the flu are thus very common, and one can suffer from both very frequently because they’re never catching the ‘same’ cold or flu twice—it’s a different virus each time. This is why flu shots have to be received on a regular basis to avoid the flu. The flu changes, and new strains rise as old strains fall and grow less common.
Viral infection is thus a dance between exposure and immunity. Virii can slip through immunity through various lucky breaks, and they can prey on those that don’t have immunity to begin with, but these are the only options they have. Even so, those options can still lead to quite severe consequences for even prepared individuals with access to proper healthcare, making prevention and minimization of exposure very important. This is the reason you see sick people wearing masks (and healthy people wearing masks when they go among the sick). This is why kids are supposed to stay home from school when they’re sick (so they don’t get other kids sick—not only because they don’t feel well).
What do Viral Infections cause?
Viral infections can cause a host of symptoms. The full extent of what a virus can do on its own is limited, but viruses come in many different varieties. For a decent idea of what a virus can do, one needs only to look at what some of the most common viruses cause. Viruses that affect most people at some point or other include influenza or the rhinovirus; very few can go through life and never suffer some case of either. There are also viruses that play out their effects on a single organ almost exclusively. Among these are varicella zoster. Varicella zoster is the clinical name of the chicken pox, which has symptoms that revolve almost exclusively around the skin. This is a far cry from the common cold, which is known for causing congestion, headaches and malaise.
Viral infections can be deadly in many cases. HIV is a chief example of this. While HIV itself cannot kill anyone, it destroys the body’s immune system. This is what results in AIDS, which allows the various pathogens loose in the world to run roughshod over the body. Without any way to fight these invaders off, the complications associated with all the very very many individual ailments results in eventual death.
Viral infections can cause many different symptoms, and there are few common elements related to various viruses aside from the body’s immune response. Almost all viral infections produce an immune response that results in the body’s developing a resistance and immunity to the virus at hand. Subsequent cases of the same virus, if there are any, tend to be much shorter spats simply because the body is used to dealing with them (unless reinfection occurs due to mutation, in which case the process starts all over, or if the reinfection occurs due to the suppression of the immune system, which can result in even more severe symptoms than the initial reaction). This immune response can be the cause of many virus symptoms. For instance, the fever associated with various viruses is actually the body’s attempt at destroying the virus itself. Many smaller organisms including viruses are susceptible to even minor changes in temperature. The increase in temperature associated with fever is an adaptation designed to kill and purge the virus itself. A fever can accelerate the death of a virus while the immune system attacks it directly, but this can unfortunately also cause very real damage over time if the fever is not regulated and it should grow out of control.
How serious are Viral Infections?
Viral infections vary in severity based on a number of different elements. Among these are what sort of virus the infection is caused by, what strain of that virus is the culprit, the infected individual’s past history with the virus and resultant degree of immunity, and any other relevant health factors that may come to mind. All of these elements come together to determine the severity of a virus, and they are so variable that a proper blanket statement cannot be made about all viruses. The rhinovirus, for instance, is only truly harmful in the most extreme cases of respiratory infirmity. Influenza, on the other hand, can prey on the young and old and contribute to complications that may even be fatal if they are left unchecked. This is why flu shots are considered so very important: while the flu is not thought of as a big deal, and most know someone at any given time suffering from some strain or other, the flu can be fatal. Still others are feared, such as HIV or syphilis. Such wild variance makes it difficult to nail down.
One feature is common to viruses, however, that make them a significant threat relative to some other pathogens. Viruses are very contagious, moreso than bacteria. Viruses also mutate much faster, which can result in very real public health threats if medical professionals cannot develop an appropriate vaccine or antiviral agent. Many viruses are resistance to what antivirals presently exist; unlike antibiotics, which are effective only on bacteria, many antivirals simply do not work at all on some viruses. When a bacteria develops an immunity to an antibiotic, it is generally over a very long time. A virus may buck its vulnerability to one of the few antiviral agents on the market within a single mutation. With a bacteria that has developed an immunity to the common antibiotics available (such as MRSA), older antibiotics that are no longer in common use may yet be effective, if not perfectly so. This is not an option when dealing with viruses. For this reason above any others, they are all credible threats, even if their individual symptoms are not that severe.
What does Viral Infection treatment look like?
Treatment for viral infections revolves around symptom management and reduction of length. Viruses cannot be ‘cured’ as such, not directly. There are antiviral treatments available, but these serve only to augment the body’s own defenses and cooperate with the immune system to purge viruses. The immunocompromised receive compromised benefit from these drugs, and furthermore these drugs are not universally effective to begin with, even more considering the possibility that viruses can mutate rapidly. Thus, keeping the virus from doing damage is a primary focus, because some viruses can and will ravage the body if given the chance.
Viruses that provoke fevers in particular must be monitored. Fevers are a complication that can be unfortunately fatal in a number of individuals. This is hardly ‘fair’, but it is also the truth. An unmonitored fever can, however rarely, spiral out of control and cause very real damage to nerves and even the brain. Appropriate recourse includes the administration of fever-reducing drugs and, in extreme cases, forced lowering of the body’s core temperature to prevent damage.
Mitigation of suffering is a major focus with viral treatment. Viruses are uncomfortable in even the best of circumstances. Fever-reducers thankfully include analgesics, which can alleviate the resulting pain that comes with many different viruses and viral infections, including chicken pox and shingles. However, this is unfortunately the best option for most viruses, when most would rather be curing it directly.
The nature of viruses means that they cannot be directly killed, however: viruses are not alive and thus cannot die. It is much easier to kill a pathogen (like a bacteria) than it is to simply remove it. Bacteria can be consumed and nullified by our immune system, but the virus itself cannot. Only when it infects a cell can the body detect and respond to it, meaning some presentation of symptoms is almost inevitable.
Vaccinations are a form of preemptive treatment that can help prevent viral infection. When one mentions ‘getting their shots’, vaccinations are frequently what are meant. Vaccinations can be thought of as ‘training’ for the immune system. They introduce a modified form of the virus that the body treats as though it were real. While the virus used is generally weak at worst, and all but completely harmless, the body does not realize this and reacts appropriately, mounting defenses that will last a lifetime. This is why vaccinations are required for entrance into the public school system: they reduce healthcare costs for everyone and save lives. Even so, vaccinations are not perfect. Vaccinations do not exist for all viruses, and in fact cannot exist for all viruses yet. Engineering a vaccine is a painstaking process of modifying the virus to take the ‘teeth’ out as it were and preventing it from spreading out of control, and this is not the easiest thing to do. It’s like trying to make a sharp knife dull while making sure it’s still a knife. Additionally, vaccines can be completely nullified by a single mutation. This is why flu shots must be updated year-to-year: the flu virus mutates so fast that it is simply impossible to keep it at bay forever with a single vaccine. Vaccine can rarely cause some complications; this is generally only a problem in individuals with compromised immune systems. There are a number of rumors that surround vaccines, and many false claims that there is a link between vaccinations and autism. There is, however, no scientific link between vaccinations and any long-term effects resembling autism (the truth is that rising rates of vaccination coincide with rising rates of the diagnosis of autism, a poorly-understood, multifaceted condition; there were isolated cases of brain swelling as a result of old, deprecated vaccinations in rare susceptible individuals). Even so, vaccinations are not perfect.
How do I know if I have a Viral Infection?
Viral infections vary between easy to detect and nearly impossible. A medical professional is always the best judge of whether or not a viral infection is present. Even so, some are obvious. The common cold, as caused by the rhinovirus, carries with it a signature set of basic symptoms. It is hard to mistake a cold, although it can rarely be mistaken for a minor case of the flu. However, the flu itself is relatively easy to identify aside from some strains that can be mistaken by their intial symptoms. Generally, however, a fever alongside appropriate symptoms implies that a virus is present.
Other symptoms are even more obvious. The chicken pox, for instance, carry with them an immistakeable blistering, spreading rash and is highly contagious. If these symptoms present in one person and then immediately jump to another later that day or in the forty-eight hours following the exposure, it would be difficult to make an argument for the presence of any other virus.
Some, conversely, can be difficult to identify. Shingles varies in difficult depending on the type, severity and stage of shingles at hand. Early stage shingles, for instance, carries with it a period of pain and malaise and fever before the signature rash actually presents itself. Couple this with the existence of a form of shingles that doesn’t actually provoke a rash as a symptom and one is left with a very tough nut to crack diagnostically in some circumstances. That said, textbook cases of shingles become identifiable once the rash does begin, and vigilant care will allow treatment to begin immediately.
Some others can only be identified with a blood test. HIV is among these. All in all viruses are a varied bunch for diagnosis, treatment and symptoms. Viruses are nothing to be taken lightly. They can have a profound impact on the health of anyone and any element of anyone—their internal organs, their skin, even their long-term quality of life. But even at their worse, viruses are still slipping into the mastery of our modern medical professionals. Smallpox has been eradicated from the world, and it stands to reason that it is only a matter of time before more fall as well.