What is a Viral Infection?
A virus is a tiny organism that causes an infection in the body. Viruses are made up of the genetic material known as DNA or RNA, which the virus uses to replicate. In order for a virus to survive, it must invade and attach itself to a living cell. It will then multiply and produce more virus particles.
By attaching itself to a host cell, the virus may either kill or alter the cell’s functions. When the cell dies, new types of viruses are released, and they infect other cells. This is how viruses cause disease. Generally, viruses will only infect one type of cell. For example, the cold virus will only infect cells of the upper respiratory tract.
Viruses can be transmitted in numerous ways, such as through contact with an infected person, swallowing, inhalation, or unsafe sex. Factors such as poor hygiene and eating habits can increase your risk of contracting a viral infection.
The external barriers, such as the skin and mucous membranes, are the first line of defense. The body’s immune defenses are triggered when the virus enters the body, and white blood cells (lymphocytes and monocytes) begin to attack and destroy the virus.
This type of general protection is referred to as innate or natural immunity.
Types of Viral Infections
Viruses can affect any part of the body or body system, and can cause infections such as the common cold, flu, gastroenteritis, chicken pox or herpes. The most common type of viral infections involves the respiratory tract.
The common cold is a frequently occurring viral infection and usually includes symptoms such as sneezing, stuffy nose, sore throat and coughing. Although colds are a minor infection of the nose and throat, a cold can last from two days to two weeks. Colds are highly contagious and are spread by fluids from sneezing or coughing, which contain the infection.
Influenza, also known as the "flu", is a respiratory infection caused by viruses. The flu differs in several ways from the common cold. Symptoms of the flu include body chills, fever, headache, muscle ache and sore throat. Unlike many other viral respiratory infections, the flu can cause severe illness and life-threatening complications in many people. The flu is contracted in the same airborne manner as the common cold. For both cold and flu, the viruses are easily transmitted in highly populated areas.
The gastrointestinal system is also commonly affected by viruses with symptoms such as diarrhea and/or vomiting. Stomach viruses can be spread through contaminated food or water and can cause viral gastroenteritis, meaning inflammation of the stomach and intestines (small and large). Improper hand washing following a bowel movement or handling a diaper can spread the disease from person to person. Symptoms of gastroenteritis can include nausea with or without vomiting, diarrhea, low-grade fever and abdominal pain. Many people call gastroenteritis the "stomach flu", although this virus is not a strain of Influenza at all.
The skin can also be infected by a viral infection such as the common wart or chicken pox. Chickenpox is an infectious disease; with most cases occurring in children under age 15, but older children and adults can also get it. It spreads very easily by human contact. Symptoms include itchy rash, fever and headache. The rash is blister-like and usually appears on the face, scalp or torso. The disease is usually mild and lasts 5 to 10 days, although adults and older children tend to get sicker from it. Chickenpox in a virus that stays in the body forever and in most cases a person who has had the virus will likely never contract it again.
Viruses such as herpes are caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). This infection can infect the mouth, genitals and anus. Oral herpes causes sores around the mouth and face, while genital herpes affects the genitals, buttocks and anus. Genital herpes is known as a sexually transmitted disease (STD) and it is transmitted through sexual contact through the mouth and genitals. This virus can be spread even when sores aren’t present. Like chickenpox, this virus will remain in the body forever; however, a person with herpes may continue to deal with reoccurrences or "outbreaks" for life.
Diagnosing Viral Infections
The diagnosis of a viral infection is usually based on the physical symptoms and the history of the illness. A condition such as influenza, which is caused by a virus, is generally easy to diagnose because most people are familiar with the symptoms. Other types of viral infections may be harder to diagnose and various tests may have to be performed.
Various Diagnostic Tests for Viral Infections
- Blood tests to check for antibodies to viruses, or for the antigens themselves
- Cultures for samples of blood, bodily fluid, or other material taken from the infected area
- Spinal tap to examine the cerebrospinal fluid
- Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) techniques may be used to make many copies of the viral genetic material, enabling doctors to rapidly and accurately identify the virus
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can detect increased swelling in the temporal lobes
Symptoms of Viral Infections
Viral infections come with a variety of symptoms ranging from mild to severe. Symptoms may vary depending on what part of the body is affected, type of viruses, age, and overall health of the affected person.
These symptoms can include:
- Muscle aches
- Runny nose
More severe symptoms include:
- Personality changes
- Neck stiffness
- Paralysis of the limbs
- Back pain
- Loss of sensation
- Impaired bladder and bowel function
- Sleepiness that can progress into a coma or death
Viral Infection vs. Bacterial Infection
Both viral and bacterial infections cause sickness; however, there is a difference between them. A viral infection is any type of infection that is caused by a virus, which is even smaller than bacteria and is encapsulated by a protective coating, so it is more difficult to kill than bacteria. Viral infections involve a dormant virus getting into a living cell and re-writing the cell's genetic codes with its own. Viruses are not living organisms and need a "living" host in order to reproduce-otherwise it cannot survive. Commonly, viral infections involve the nose, throat and upper airways. Viral infections cause illnesses as minor as the common cold and as severe as AIDS.
To contract a bacterial infection, pathogenic bacterium must gain access into the body through contaminated water, cuts, or contact with an infected person or contaminated objects. One of the major differences between viral and bacterial infections is that a bacterial infection can be transmitted through inanimate objects such as door knobs and countertops, whereas viral cannot. Another difference is that bacteria is a living microorganism and reproduces by dividing itself, while a virus will die if it does not have a host. Common bacterial infections occur due to the invasion of pathogenic bacteria through the respiratory or digestive tract. Some bacterial infections are contagious like strep throat, while others are not.
What Causes Viral Infections?
Human cells are vulnerable to viruses, and when the body is exposed to viral particles, the immune system will try to destroy these particles and eliminate them from the system.
A lowered immune system allows the virus to more easily attach itself to available cells, often bringing about general symptoms such as fever, chills, and muscle aches. This also makes it easier for the virus to replicate, and thus advances symptoms until the immune system can fight the virus off.
Viral Infections in Babies & Children
Children often contract viral infections, as children spend time around other children who have colds, and this makes it more likely that the cold will be passed on to them. A child’s immune system is not as strong as adults, and their body is still learning how to fight viruses for the first time. Some infections can become quite serious while some just bring about a feeling of unwell. Often babies and children develop fevers, headaches, runny nose, cough, sore throat and fatigue. These symptoms are caused by the battle between the virus and the body's immune system.
- It is important to allow babies and children to rest when they have a fever.
- For younger children who cannot blow their nose, use a rubber suction bulb to suck drainage from both sides of the nose.
- Loosen dried nasal drainage with warm water.
- Children older than four years of age may be able to suck on throat lozenges for sore throats.
- Children should drink extra water, fruit juices, or soups- avoid giving milk to infants for congestion reasons.
- Use hot steam to loosen mucus in child’s chest and nasal passages.
NOTE: See your doctor if high temperature persists for more than 5 days.
Help for Viral Infections
The best way of treating human viruses will depend on the strength of the individual’s immune system, their overall health status, age, the severity of the condition, and the type of viruses involved.
Minor illnesses caused by viral infections usually only require symptomatic treatment, while more severe conditions may require advanced medical treatment and sometimes even life-long treatment. A combination of treatment options such as conventional medicine, complementary therapy, and natural medicine can help to fight the infection, control the symptoms, and strengthen the immune response.
It is important to remember that treating human viruses cannot be accomplished through antibiotics, and the unnecessary use of antibiotics can weaken the immune system, thus increasing the likelihood of contracting another infection.
Conventional Medicine for Viral Infections
- Over-the-counter painkillers and anti-inflammatories such as paracetamol or ibuprofen can reduce symptoms and fever, but can also have side effects, especially with long-term or excessive usage.
- Antiviral medication and immune substances such as interferons and immunoglobulins are sometimes prescribed for more serious infections. They can be administered orally, intravenously, intramuscularly, topically, or by inhalation. Because viruses live within the body’s own cells, antiviral medications often have severe side effects. In order to kill off the virus, they have to damage the body’s cells.
- Antiretroviral therapy suppresses the replication of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), even if there are no symptoms. The aim of treatment is to lower the concentration of virus (viral load).
Natural Herbal and Homeopathic Remedies for Viral Infection
Natural and holistic remedies used instead of or in conjunction with conventional medicine and other complementary therapies can be extremely effective in relieving the symptoms of viral infections and treating human viruses. These types of remedies can successfully address the underlying cause of the condition as well as help to maintain the overall physical and emotional health of the individual.
Herbal and homeopathic remedies are gentle and safe to use without the harmful side effects of many prescription medications. Hypoxis rooperi, Agothosma betulina, Mentha piperita, Solidago virgaurea, Viscum album, Crataegus oxycanthoide, Schizandra sinesis, Astralagus membranaceus, and Olea europea are all examples of natural remedies that can help to promote immune system functioning and support the body’s ability to fight against harmful pathogens. Consult a physician, homeopath, or herbalist about a remedy that suits you.
- Herbal and homeopathic remedies
- Aruyvedic medications
- Nutritional therapy
- Meditation, psychotherapy, and counseling may be of benefit when there are long-term consequences and psychological implications.
After Effects of Viral Infection
Viral infections can last as long as two weeks, and after infection, it is important to get the immune system back on track. Eat foods rich in vitamins like oranges, carrots, kiwis, raisins, green beans and strawberries. Continue to drink plenty of fluids, and go easy on sweets, as they make the body acidic and pathogens thrive in this environment.
Start an exercise regimen, like walking, biking with the family or swimming. Take it easy on the body at first and allow breaks. Walking 20 minutes a day, without over-exertion, can help keep the body healthy and get back into optimum shape after a viral infection. The body is resilient and will continue to thrive in the right circumstances. Taking care of the immune system after a virus will not only allow for prime health but will help keep new viruses at bay.
More Information on Viral Infection
Some Advice on Preventing and Dealing with Viral Infections
There are several ways to prevent infection and the transmission of germs. These useful tips can help you to remain healthy and develop a stronger immune system:
- Maintain a healthy lifestyle by eating properly, obtaining sufficient rest and exercising regularly.
- Wash your hands frequently and thoroughly – before cooking, eating or after visiting the toilet.
- Avoid contact with someone who has an illness that you may catch such as a cold, the flu, chickenpox, or measles.
- Avoid touching your eyes or nose if you have been in contact with someone who has a cold.
- Practice good personal hygiene by showering or bathing every day, washing your hair, and trimming your nails regularly.
- Brush and floss your teeth twice a day, and visit your dentist regularly to prevent infection and cavities.
- Use cleaning detergents and rubber gloves when cleaning your home
- Pop sponges and dish cloths into the microwave to disinfect them, as they harbor the most germs.
- Cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze.
- Do not eat or drink while working with contaminated things or while cleaning up.
- Practice safe sex. Using condoms during sexual intercourse will reduce the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.
- Eat protein and cooked vegetables at least twice a day as this helps to rebuild the immune system.
- Drink bottled or filtered water as it is less likely to be contaminated.
- Increase your intake of nutritional supplements to prevent infections by helping to eliminate toxic substances, improve digestion, and balance body chemistry.
- Positive attitudes and healthy emotions also strengthen the immune system and help you to live longer and feel younger and healthier.