5 Things You Need to Know About Viruses

By Ernst Lamothe Jr.

Physician Helen Jacoby is an infectious disease specialist at St. Joseph’s in Syracuse.
Physician Helen Jacoby is an infectious disease specialist at St. Joseph’s in Syracuse.

The world is learning more about how certain viruses spread in speed and how long they can linger.

Cold and flu virus-laden droplets may infect a surface for many hours, depending on where they fall. Viruses generally remain active longer on stainless steel, plastic and similar hard surfaces than on fabric and other soft surfaces, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Other factors, such as the amount of virus deposited on a surface and the temperature and humidity of the environment also determine how long viruses stay active outside the body.

We’re also learning it’s possible to catch a virus after handling an object that an infected person sneezed or coughed on a few moments before. But personal contact with an infected person — such as a handshake or breathing in droplets from a cough or sneeze — is the most common way these viruses spread.

“While the nation is just learning about the coronavirus, there are countless viruses,” said physician Helen Jacoby, an infectious disease specialist at St. Joseph’s in Syracuse. “They can affect the body in many ways with some causing respiratory issues while some can attack other areas of the body.”

Jacoby talks about five aspects of viruses.

1. Viruses can live on objects

The length of time a virus can survive on a surface depends upon the type of virus and the surface involved. There is a reason why medical experts stress disinfecting consistently throughout the day and the fact that droplets can spread person to person and person to object to person rather quickly.

“Because viruses can linger on areas and inanimate objects for various lengths of time that is essentially the reason why it is important to wipe down surfaces or make sure you are constantly washing your hands if you do touch areas,” said Jacoby. “It is easy to transmit viruses if you are not being diligent in what the Centers for Disease Control and other health experts are telling you about how viruses spread.”

2. Social distancing is essential for some viruses

Social distancing is deliberately increasing the physical space between people to avoid spreading illness. Staying at least six feet away from other people lessens your chances of catching COVID-19. Canceling events that are likely to draw crowds is an example of social distancing.

“I understand that it has been an adjustment for people to not touch or be six feet away from each other, but it is imperative that these rules be followed if you want to avoid spreading the disease,” said Jacoby. “Viral droplets must attach onto something and then when they enter through your nose, eyes or mouth that is when the damage begins.”

3. Viruses are different from bacteria

The most important distinction between bacteria and viruses is that antibiotic drugs usually kill bacteria, but they aren’t effective against viruses. Infections caused by bacteria include strep throat, tuberculosis and urinary tract infections. Diseases caused by viruses include chickenpox, AIDS and the common cold.

“People often confuse the two. Antibiotics are not going to help you if you have a viral infection such as the common cold or the coronavirus infection,” said Jacoby. “For example, traditional antibiotics are useful for bacterial infections such as pneumonia, bladder infections or sinus infections but viral infections like Hepatitis C or HIV would need anti-viral medication.”

4. Vaccinations

Many have wondered with COVID-19 being an issue first overseas for months, why hasn’t an established vaccine been created and distributed to the public? Well, it is not that easy. There is a process through the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that involves different scientific trials before it is given to the general population. It first starts with bench research to identify the correct components of the vaccine. Then there are tests on animals and then you start the first phase on a few dozen people.

“There are risks with any vaccine which is why medical professionals go through such lengths to make sure that it is tested through several rounds. It would be dangerous to put anything out too quickly without knowing the side effects especially with any new types of viruses,” said Jacoby.

5. Viruses cause a wide range of illness

Viruses can cause a wide range of illness in humans. They can be anything from subtle to deadly. Various viruses can cause headaches, chills, vomiting or more serious problems.

“Viruses can be anything from the common cold to herpes and they are all transmitted in different ways,” said Jacoby.

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