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Viruses

We’ve been inundated these last two years with information regarding a virus commonly labeled Covid-19. And now, with winter weather upon us, we need to remember there’s also the Flu virus and the typical head cold virus. So, I thought it would be time to review just exactly what a virus is.

A virus is not alive in the sense we typically think. You might think of a virus as just a “thing” that floats around until it encounters a suitable living host. A virus does not live or multiply on its own. It must have a living host to multiply. Viruses can invade the host’s cells and manipulate the cell’s own genetic material (DNA or RNA). This action by the virus prohibits the cell from carrying out normal functions. The virus then uses the altered genetic material to reproduce itself.

There are hundreds of different viruses which are categorized into various types. Four notables of these types are Norovirus, Rotavirus, Coronavirus and Rhinovirus.

*Norovirus: A type of virus that causes a mild illness (often termed “stomach flu”) with nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, headache, and lowgrade fever. These symptoms usually resolve in 2 to 3 days. It is the most common viral cause of food poisoning in adults and is transmitted in water, shellfish, and vegetables contaminated by feces as well as from person to person. Outbreaks are more common in densely populated areas, such as nursing homes, schools, and cruise ships (hence, the viral infection is also known as the “cruise ship illness”).

*Rotavirus: This virus causes moderate to severe illness with vomiting followed by watery diarrhea and fever. It is the most common cause of food poisoning in infants and children and is transmitted from person to person by fecal contamination of food and shared play areas.

*Coronavirus: This virus can cause a variety of illnesses in all mammals, but in people coronaviruses cause one-third of common colds. While a more lethal variety can cause COVID-19 as we know it today. As of 2021, 45 species are registered as coronaviruses.

*Rhinovirus: The rhinovirus is the most common viral infectious agent in humans and is the predominant cause of the common cold.

Viruses can be spread by touching, by exchange of body fluids (saliva, blood, or sexual encounters), coughing and sneezing, contaminated food or water, and insects. Although it’s impossible to keep your hands 100% germ-free, washing your hands frequently can help limit the transfer of viruses. Frequent handwashing is one of the best and easiest ways to avoid getting sick and spreading infection.

Fighting viruses requires a healthy immune system. The immune system creates specific antibodies that bind to the virus, weakening it and making it susceptible to the immune system making it no longer infectious, or at least less so. Various vaccines have been developed which stimulate the immune system to create specific antibodies which help prevent viral illnesses (measles, mumps, chicken pox, polio, smallpox, and hepatitis B, to name a few). There are also antiviral medications that slow the progression of a viral illness as long as the medication is taken very early after diagnosis.

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