As we approach winter, there is often increasing concern about the cold and flu season. Colds and flu are associated with viruses. This year, we have the additional media exposure of the Ebola virus, though it is unlikely any of us will get any actual exposure to that one. So viruses are in the news. Let's talk about them. What are they? How do they work and why do they cause us such problems? First understand that this discussion is going to be very general, superficial and so, perhaps, highly unsatisfactory to some! But virology is a very complex subject and there is simply no way to do it justice in this setting. I simply hope to provide a little bit of understanding and some suggestions to ease your struggle with viruses.
What is a Virus? The basic "anatomy" of a virus is just that - basic. They are very small (20-a few hundred nanometers), all have a nucleic acid genome, either DNA or RNA, and some sort of protective coat called a capsid. But after that, we move away from basic! There are many configurations of this anatomy. Some viruses have an additional piece known as an envelope, but they gain this envelope from their host cell. Viruses have no organs or organelles of their own and they cannot reproduce on their own. Because of this, there is argument about whether viruses are actually categorized as microorganisms. Some do put them in this group; others say they are non-living and call them microscopic infective agents. There are estimates of there being over 300,000 different viruses. The ones we are most familiar with are disease-producing, but it appears that there are some that can be helpful as well.
How Does a Virus Work? Again, there is a great deal of variation in specifics on how a virus works. Basically, a virus enters a host cell, overthrows its government and uses the existing infrastructure to replicate itself. Sometimes this is done without killing the host cell, other times it does. But first, the virus has to gain entry into a cell. There are several ways this can happen. Some are spread through direct contact, carried in droplets of saliva in sneezes or coughs that we then inhale. Some we ingest from contaminated food or water. Some are sexually transmitted, some through the blood. And some viruses use an animal to inject itself into us with a bite or sting. Once inside, some viruses (like HIV) also have ways to suppress the body's natural defenses.
What Diseases are Viral? This is a long list! Many of them are common and we all probably have some personal experience with some. Influenza and pneumonia are featured prominently each year with vaccine promotions. Most children get vaccines for measles, mumps, rubella and chicken pox. Some of you remember polio. Many of us first feared rabies watching Old Yeller. Who hasn't had a cold? Herpes, hepatitis, shingles, HPV, HIV, Epstein-Barr, SARS are all virus-caused. Ebola is currently hot in the news, but there are many others too. In fairly recent research, some viruses are implicated in cancer.
How does the Body fight Viruses? The body has some built-in protections against viruses. The skin is the first one. A virus cannot penetrate intact skin. Other general conditions of our body help as well. Mucus membranes and cilia trap viruses and either remove them from the body or hold them for extermination by cells of our immune system. Macrophages, NK cells and T cells are all involved in killing viruses. Stomach acid kills most viruses. Our immune system also has general reactions to viral exposure. Fever can create conditions inhospitable to viruses, but it also triggers a cascade of immune events that inhibit a viruses ability to reproduce in one way or another. Another side to our immune system is a specific reaction where we make antibodies to a particular virus. These can help in our recovery from an illness, but especially in our ability to resist having the same illness again. Most of the time, once we have the mumps for example, we become immune to having it again. This is because our body has recognized the mumps virus and stores that memory. If we are exposed to the mumps virus again, the body recognizes it immediately and has the equipment at hand to defeat it before it can take hold. This is how vaccines work. We expose the body to a virus so that it can "see" it, build the antibodies for it and store that memory for future exposures. This route of viral management has been much more effective overall than medicines to treat a viral infection already set in. Some anti-viral medications have been developed, primarily in the treatment of HIV/AIDS, and work in this area continues. These drugs work mostly to make the environment hostile for the viruses rather than to kill them directly. ANTIBIOTICS ARE NOT EFFECTIVE IN TREATING VIRAL INFECTIONS!!! Overuse of antibiotics has created a huge pile of problems on its own beyond the scope of this post! But please remember this when you are offered antibiotics without knowing a condition is bacterial.
Ways to Assist the Body in this Fight. Since there aren't many medicines that actually kill viruses once we get them, the best thing we can do is to avoid exposure and keep the immune system in tip-top shape. Handwashing, keeping the skin intact, avoiding coughing/sneezing people when you can and safe sex practices are common sense practices that set the foundation. The immune system works best (like the rest of our body!) when it is well hydrated, well rested and fed healthy, whole food. It likes joyfulness and gratitude, positive relationships, laughter and meditation. It doesn't like sugar, alcohol and chronic stress so much. Making healthy lifestyle choices always works in our favor. Beyond this, there are many herbs and vitamins that are known to stimulate the immune system. Many people use Vitamin C for this and Vitamin A & D may also be useful. Elderberry has long been used for viral infections and immune support and studies are beginning to verify its effectiveness. Garlic, echinacea, goldenseal, ligustrum, astragalus, osha - the list is long for herbs that can be supportive in cases of viral infections. These are best used at the first sign of infection - along with rest and decreased food intake.
Yes, some viruses are scary and fatal, but many more are just a nuisance. Consider that we are exposed to them all the time, but conditions have to be right for them to take hold. Keeping our bodies healthy is our best defense for most the viruses we will encounter and we can do that every single day! If we are immunocompromised or otherwise unhealthy, we may consider vaccines or other extra measures to boost our resistance. We are fortunate in the United States to have minimal native deadly viruses, but travelers to foreign countries that do may be wise to consider vaccines prior to their visits. Consult with your health care practitioner and/or the Center for Disease Control for recommendations in this area.
So take charge of this cold/flu season right now with good, healthy habits! Be well!
Resources: Univ of S Carolina School of Medicine - www.pathmicro.med.sc.edu/book/virol-sta.htm, www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/158179.php