A viral infection can cause illnesses as mild as the common cold and as serious as HIV/AIDS. Many people are diagnosed with a viral infection but not receive any more specific information about the virus that is triggering the symptoms. Usually, the symptoms are minor, and patients recover without any treatment. Healthcare providers do not always know the exact cause of the illness. Therefore, you often receive the diagnosis of a “viral infection” without any specific name.
A virus is a germ smaller than a bacterium. Viruses are covered by a protective coating, so they are harder to kill than bacteria. They are more difficult to treat since they are not susceptible to antibiotics due to their protective coating. Besides, viruses cannot exist or grow without a host cell – they must be in a living organism (e.g., the human body) to survive.
A viral infection is a common name for some kinds of diseases caused by viruses. These diseases trigger symptoms such as fever and fatigue, which makes you feel tired. There are many kinds of viruses. Viruses of the airways and gastrointestinal viruses are the most important. Other viruses cause such local symptoms as laryngitis, cold sores, and shingles.
Antibiotics do not help when you have a viral infection, and a doctor should not prescribe an antibiotic. Only a minority of people with general complaints (e.g., fever and fatigue) have a bacterial infection. Doctors also should not prescribe antibiotics ‘just to be sure’ since bacteria can be used to the antibiotics and become resistant, so when they are truly necessary, they will not be effective anymore.
When people have a minor illness such as fever, an upset stomach, nausea, and diarrhea, they often say they contract a “24-hour virus” or a “stomach virus.” Besides viruses, there are many other possible causes of these kinds of symptoms, including bacterial infection and bacterial food poisoning. People often recover from these mild illnesses before doctors can conduct the tests that determine the cause. A “stomach virus” might or might not be a virus at all.
Vaccines are useful against only certain kinds of viruses. For instance, the polioviruses that trigger poliomyelitis – a great crippler of children – are few and quite stable. It was possible in the 1950s to develop a vaccine that protects children from contracting polio (though the illness still happens in the developing countries where fewer children are vaccinated). Influenza viruses change in minor ways every several years and in a major way every ten years, so a flu vaccine is effective for only a year or two.
Why has a vaccine for the common cold never been developed? There are at least a hundred different viruses that cause colds, and to date, it has still been impossible to make up a vaccine that works against all of them. The same problem applies to HIV, which has plentiful and fast-changing strains (variations). As a result, progress towards an AIDS vaccine has remained slow.
Common Viral Infections
1. The Common Cold
The common cold is the most common viral infection, which can be triggered by many different viruses. The cold is often caused by an adenovirus, coronavirus, or rhinovirus. Symptoms are mild and last from a week to ten days.
It is the virus that causes the seasonal flu. Hundreds of strains of influenza can cause flu symptoms; the virus mutates every year. Although the flu is not serious for everyone, thousands of people in the U.S. are hospitalized each year. Worldwide, nearly 250,000 and half a million people die because of the flu each year.
Often caused by a virus, bacteria, or even chemicals, the most popular form of Bronchitis is the viral version. It may cause a cough that persists for weeks and is a common complication of the flu and the common cold.
Also known as the stomach flu, gastroenteritis is a common viral infection. This unpleasant illness triggers symptoms, such as vomiting and diarrhea, and is extremely contagious. Viruses, such as rotavirus and norovirus, cause gastroenteritis.
A virus that occurs almost in children under eight years old, croup can be very scary for both the infected infants and their parents. Croup manifests itself by a cough that sounds like a seal barking. Some infants may also experience stridor – a whistling sound formed when the child is inhaling.
Antibiotics do not kill viruses; therefore, using them to treat viral infections only leads to antibiotic resistance. Just a few antiviral medications can treat very specific viruses, and they are not always efficacy. A few drugs, such as acyclovir and ribavirin, can control the spread of viral invaders without affecting host cells. Intense research to find treatments for AIDS has resulted in the development of many drugs that help to fight the virus. Unfortunately, none of these medications has been able to treat viral infections as efficiently as antibiotics treat bacterial infections. However, there are vaccines that can help to prevent many infections. If you have a minor viral infection, treat the symptoms if can and just let it run its course.
Things you can do if you have viral infections:
- Drink plenty of fluids. By keeping you hydrated, you will make it easier for your body to heal.
- Rest as much as possible.
- Take fever reducers or over the counter pain relievers such as acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil or Motrin) or aspirin.
- Only take medications that are prescribed by your doctor.
1. Hygiene and sanitation
The foremost step in preventing the spread of viral infections is to practice good hygiene. Wash the hands regularly, and eat only food that has been properly prepared. It also means building and preserving facilities for disposing of sewage safely and providing clean drinking water.
Another important measure is immunizing people against viruses. It involves providing people with vaccines that stimulate the immune system to produce antibodies and proteins that can target a particular germ. Vaccines to prevent chicken pox, Hepatitis B, measles, mumps, polio, and rubella (German measles) are usually given to babies and young children throughout the world. Vaccines can also prevent influenza and Hepatitis A.
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