Have you ever heard "your illness is most likely caused by a virus"? What does THAT mean? What is a virus? Can I get antibiotics? Viruses are tiny particles that are too small to be seen with a regular microscope. They mostly consist of DNA or RNA surrounded by a coat of protein. They cannot live alone, that is cannot grow or replicate by themselves as bacteria can. They must therefore find a "host" cell, and use that cell's parts and machinery to reproduce.
Viruses are out in the environment waiting for a host cell to come along. They can enter humans through the nose, mouth, or breaks in the skin. The viruses have some type of protein on their outer layer that recognizes the proper host cell. Cold and flu viruses, for example, will infect cells lining the respiratory tract.
Once inside the cell, the virus enzymes take over the host enzymes and begin making new virus. The new virus leaves the host cell by either breaking it open or budding out from it. Once free, they can attack other cells. One virus can reproduce thousands, and viral infections can spread quickly through the body.
Antibiotics, while good for treating bacteria, have no effect on a virus. A bacteria differs from a virus in that it is a single cell capable of living and replicating on its' own. Antibiotics are formulated to interfere with this replication. As a virus is safe inside your own cells while reproducing, the antibiotic has no effect on them. A person usually must depend on their own body's immune system to defeat a virus. One way it does this is by, increasing your body's temperature. The fever slows down the rate that viruses reproduce. Your immune system also begins to develop antibodies, which can hook to the virus particle and stop it from getting into your cells, or signal for more help from other cells. In most, but not all cases, your immune system keeps fighting until the virus is gone from your body. There are also a few anti-viral medications for specific infections that can help you feel better sooner.
Occasionally with viral infections you will start to feel better, and then suddenly feel worse again for a day or two. This is a new batch of virus being released in your body. Your immune system is already on the attack, so you will generally start to feel better more rapidly than you did when you first became sick.
Vaccines are another treatment against viruses. A vaccine can be a weakened, killed, or piece of a virus that is introduced into your body, usually through a shot. Your immune system can then develop antibodies that are ready to fight off the infection if the real virus starts reproducing. Vaccines are available against many infections today, including polio, chicken pox, shingles (herpes zoster), human papilloma virus (which can cause cervical cancer), Hepatitis B, measles and mumps, among others. While they do not provide 100% protection against the specific illness, they make it much less likely that your infection will make you severely ill.
When the virus reproduces rapidly, it can sometimes make "mistakes" or mutations in its offspring. This happens frequently with the flu virus, so a new vaccine is developed every year to help control the "new" strain of flu. Colds are caused by hundreds of different viruses, so an immunization against this is virtually impossible to develop.
If you would like more information about vaccinations, or would like to know how often and at what age vaccinations are recommended, please contact our office or your health care provider.
Lolo Family Practice