What are Viruses? And How to Keep Safe
Lately our lives have been turned upside down by one virus that we know all too well: the coronavirus. We’ve been washing our hands and keeping our distance, but have you ever stopped to wonder what a virus is and how it causes illness?
Viruses are very tiny germs that cause common diseases like colds, flu and warts. They are so tiny that 500 million cold viruses could fit on the head of a pin! The germs that cause viruses are everywhere — in the air, soil, water and our bodies. We naturally co-exist with many germs that cause no harm. It’s only a small fraction of the germs we’re surrounded by that cause infection. Viral infections can range from minor inconveniences to very serious illnesses like the coronavirus, HIV/AIDS, measles, rabies, polio, Ebola, swine flu and SARS.
When you’re exposed to a virus, your immune system (the body’s defense system) may fight it off so you don’t get sick. But if it finds a way in, a virus invades normal, healthy cells in the body and multiplies. That’s when you develop a sore throat, fever and/or other symptoms.
It’s sometimes hard to tell at first whether it’s a cold, flu or allergies acting up. See our newsletter that describes the symptoms of each. The symptoms most closely associated with coronavirus are cough, fever, fatigue and shortness of breath. For the most recent updates about the coronavirus, click here.
Viral Infections are Different from Bacterial Infections
Viruses and bacteria are two different kinds of germs. Viruses need to be inside living human cells to grow and multiply but can live for a short time in the air or on surfaces like a doorknob. Bacteria have only one cell and thrive on environments inside or outside the body.
Because the two germs are different, the treatment for viral and bacterial infections are often different. There are antiviral medicines to treat some viral infections, but they must be started in the first day or two of symptoms. For most viral infections, treatments can only help relieve symptoms (lozenges for a sore throat, decongestant for a stuffy nose) while you wait for your immune system to fight off the virus. Antibiotics are effective for treating bacterial infections, but they do not work for viral infections. Vaccines can prevent many bacterial (tuberculosis, tetanus, pertussis) and viral (polio, measles, mumps) diseases.
Finding A Way In
Viruses can be sneaky. They hide on menus, handrails, phones, ATM buttons, your hands and in the air, to name a few spots. When a sick person sneezes or coughs, tiny droplets carrying germs move through the air or land on surfaces within six feet. That’s why many viruses are called airborne diseases. You can catch them simply by breathing or by touching something they’ve landed on (and then touching your eyes, nose or mouth). That’s an easy way in since studies show that people touch their faces 16 to 26 times an hour!
Being in close, confined quarters is a sure way to be exposed to viruses. Cruise ships, schools and other large and small gatherings of people are at such high risk since they involve lots of people in confined (or partially-confined) spaces, which can make it easy for viruses to spread from person-to-person. And that is why we’ve been asked to stay six feet apart while shopping or waiting in the grocery store line.
Viruses can catch up with you when you haven’t been eating well or getting enough sleep. We are all more vulnerable to illness when we are not taking the best care of ourselves or when stress levels are high. Young children, older people and those with certain health conditions are at higher risk for getting sick and for developing complications from a viral infection, such as the flu and the coronavirus.
How to Keep Safe
You’ve no doubt heard that the best defense against germs is hand washing, but why is it so important? Because, according to numerous studies, washing hands with soap and water whenever possible reduces the amount of all kinds of germs and chemicals on hands. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says if soap and water are not available, then using a hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol can help avoid spreading germs. Soap and water are more effective than hand sanitizer at removing certain germs like the norovirus and C. difficile.
When used correctly, hand sanitizers can kill many germs, but often people don’t use enough sanitizer or wipe it off before it dries. Covering all surfaces of your hands with the amount recommended on the bottle and allowing the alcohol to dry is essential to killing germs. Keep in mind too that hand sanitizer isn’t as effective at killing germs when hands are greasy or heavily soiled. They work well in health care settings where hands come into contact with germs but generally aren’t visibly dirty or greasy. After handling food, playing sports, gardening, or camping and fishing, it is best to wash hands with soap and water. Also, hand sanitizers probably can’t take on pesticides or other harmful chemicals; the use of gloves and hand washing is best.
What about wearing a mask? You need a mask if you are coughing or sneezing or if you are healthy but caring for a person with coronavirus or other infection. Masks are only effective when used in combination with frequent hand washing. Touching a mask with unclean hands can defeat its purpose.
Before putting on a mask, wash hands with soap and water or hand sanitizer. Cover the mouth and nose with the mask and make sure there are no gaps between your face and the mask. Avoid touching the mask while wearing it. If you need to touch it, clean your hands first. Replace the mask if it becomes damp; do not reuse single-use masks. To remove, start from behind and do not touch the front of the mask. Place the used mask in a trash bin with a lid. And wash your hands again!
While many of us are hunkered down at home and limiting our movements, it may become necessary to travel away from home at some point. If you’re sick, it’s best to stay home to protect others from being exposed to you, unless you are seeking medical care. If you do go out, take care not to touch your eyes, nose or mouth without first washing your hands. Try to avoid contact with people who are sick. If you cough or sneeze, cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your sleeve (not your hand). Nowadays, it’s not unusual to see someone in the grocery store wearing gloves (but still remember not to touch your face if you wear them!).
Cleaning goes a long way towards fighting viruses (see box). Cleaning and wiping down bathroom, kitchen and other shared surfaces with a disinfectant kills germs. The same goes for cabinet knobs, doorknobs, phones and other devices.
If the coronavirus pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that germs lurk in places we touch every day. Did you ever consider money, gym equipment or your phone? How about chair backs, light switches, sinks, elevator buttons, escalator rails, shopping carts and desks?
Cleaning and disinfecting takes on new meaning when you think of all those surfaces. Yes, it’s a two-step process! Cleaning removes germs and dirt from surfaces. But to kill germs, household bleach, alcohol (at least 70%) or household disinfectants are required. Disinfecting doesn’t clean per se, so it’s best to clean first and disinfect second.
Wash clothes in the warmest water setting possible for the items and dry items completely. Wear gloves when handling dirty laundry from a sick person and while disinfecting. If you wash your hands in a public restroom, use the paper towel to turn off the faucet and open the door before throwing it away.
The coronavirus pandemic has been very stressful, from trying to protect the health of our loved ones to worrying about the financial impact it’s having. Don’t forget that KnovaSolutions is available to help you and your family. Our clinicians can answer questions, connect you with resources, support you as you make important healthcare decisions and listen with an empathetic ear. Let us help! Call Monday through Friday, 8 am-8 pm, Mountain Time at 800/355-0885.
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The information contained in this newsletter is for general, educational purposes. It should not be considered a replacement for consultation with your healthcare provider. If you have concerns about your health, please contact your healthcare provider.