What is a Virus, Anyway?

What is a Virus

Dear HCTA,

What is a virus, anyway? I don’t get it.

Myrtle, from South Carolina

Well, Myrtle, let’s get to the basics.

A virus is a teeny tiny (microscopic) parasite.

It needs a living cell to reproduce. Like Vin Diesel hijacking a semi in Fast and the Furious, a virus hijacks a living cell.

Viruses infect every life form, from humans and other animals to plants and even microbes such as bacteria!

Viruses contain a small segment of genetic material—either DNA or RNA—that’s surrounded by a protective coat of proteins and sometimes, an outer layer of lipids (like our friends the coronaviruses). There are millions of different types of viruses, and their shapes vary from simple to complex.

When the viruses hijack other living cells, they use the cell to reproduce their genetic material. Essentially they are duplicating themselves inside their host. Sometimes it destroys its host and sometimes it causes diseases. 

Are viruses alive?!

Scientists differ on whether viruses are “alive.” Most of them do not think of them as alive, despite their genetic material, self-replication, and (sometimes) deadly function.

Although they possess genes, they do not have a cellular structure and need a host cell in which to function. Viruses, however, can be considered a “biological entity” and, by any measure, are extremely successful and extremely abundant.

What diseases do viruses cause?

Examples of human diseases caused by viruses include the common cold, influenza, chicken pox, rabies, Ebola, AIDS, and SARS.

In the case of the current coronavirus pandemic (worldwide epidemic), the virus is called SARS-CoV-2, and the resulting disease is called COVID-19. (Coronaviruses are a group of related RNA viruses that cause respiratory tract infections that can be lethal.)

How do viruses spread?

Viruses spread in many ways. For example, aphids can spread viruses among plants and mosquitos can transmit viruses in animals and humans.

Human influenza viruses and coronaviruses are spread mainly by coughing and sneezing, while HIV is transmitted through sexual contact and infected blood. 

How do humans fight viruses?

Viral infections in animals trigger an immune response that usually eliminates the infecting virus. Immune responses can also be produced by vaccines. 

How do we fight the coronavirus?

What is a Virus

In the case of the SARS-CoV-2, the best way to fight it is not to get it in the first place. This particular sucker is fantastic at taking over its human hosts, which is why we’re all supposed to be staying home and washing our hands. A lot.

The SARS-CoV-2 virus is surrounded by a lipid bilayer envelope. The act of scrubbing breaks that envelope (20 seconds!!!!), effectively killing the virus (which isn’t alive anyway).

So scrub, scrub and scrub!! Keep that virus from hijacking your cells.

We are not doctors and nothing we write should be construed as medical advice. If you do find yourself feeling the symptoms of COVID-19, please call your doctor and quarantine yourself in your house. Calling your doctor will not by itself fight off the virus, but it will put you on the path to wellness.

Other tips that readers have shared include drinking lots of fluids (especially warm fluids) and avoiding starches, alcohol, and smoking (duh).

So, Myrtle, knowledge is power….

About the Authors

Professional worrier. Mom, entrepreneur. Lifetime student of brain science. Passionate about surviving what's coming (climate change, wtf) and staying as sane as possible. Determined to make the best of the end of the world.

A former science editor for the Lawerence Livermore National Laboratory, the "Great Arno" offers his scientific expertise and the experience of a lifetime of prepping.

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