5 Things You Need to Know About Viruses

By Ernst Lamothe Jr.

Anja Bottler, infectious disease physician at Unity Hospital.
Anja Bottler, infectious disease physician at Unity Hospital.

The world is learning more about how fast certain viruses spread and how long they can linger. Virus-laden droplets may infect an area for several 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 Mayor 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 through a handshake or breathing in droplets from a cough or sneeze is the most common way these viruses spread, said Anja Bottler, infectious disease physician at Unity Hospital, which is part of Rochester Regional Health.

Bottler describes five traits of viruses.

1. Viruses are different than bacteria

The most important distinction between bacteria and viruses is that antibiotic drugs usually kill bacteria, but they aren’t effective against viruses. Diseases caused by viruses include chickenpox, AIDS and the common cold. Infections caused by bacteria include strep throat, tuberculosis and urinary tract infections. If you notice signs of strep throat in your child, you may consider scheduling him for a rapid pediatric strep exam to confirm.

“Viruses cannot survive by themselves. They need to live inside a human or animal cell,” said Bottler. “Viruses feed off the cells and use protein and amino acids and they grab onto the cell and replicate to form new little viruses. Once they form, then we can directly spread it to others in various ways.”

2. Social distancing

That’s the reason why Bottler said social distancing is so essential to prevent the spread. 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 the coronavirus or other types of virus.

“It is easier to spread viruses when you get in close quarters and are directly in front of someone’s face,” said Bottler. “When you are farther apart, it is more difficult for the droplets to come in contact with you and they can simply fall to the ground and can’t reach another person’s face, hands or clothing. This is one of the only ways we can prevent the spread of a disease and avoid infecting each other.”

Another reason she suspects the virus spread so quickly is travel.

“People traveled all over the world in the past three to four months, and when they landed back home, they spread the virus without knowing,” she added.

3. Vaccines take time

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. As Bottler explained, there is a process through the Federal Drug Administration that involves different scientific trials before it is given to the general population. It first starts with bench scientific trials to identify how the immune system and virus travels from person to person. Then there are tests on animals and then you start the first phase on a few dozen people.

“There are many factors that play a role in how quickly we can get a vaccine to the public. There are reasons why we have multiple trials to make sure everything is safe and that we are not injecting people with something that could give them serious side effects,” Bottler said. “If we gave the vaccine to 1,000 people in Rochester, we have to make sure that the vaccine works or they could easily just spread it as if they were not vaccinated.”

Bottler mentioned that it was easier coming up with an H1N1 vaccine because it resembled the flu strain as opposed to coronavirus, which is a different beast itself that the medical community is still trying to decipher.

4. Upper vs lower respiratory

Because a virus can hit various aspects of the body, where it attacks can determine the severity. 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.

“Where the virus comes into the body, this is some of the reasons why the coronavirus is so deadly. When you have a regular cold, it often hits the upper respiratory portion of your body and affects your throat and sinus,” she said. “But the coronavirus is hitting the lower respiratory portion, which is where the lungs are at and that can cause pneumonia and respiratory failure.”

5. Global warming and viruses

Today, worldwide, there is an apparent increase in many infectious diseases, including some newly-circulating ones. Climate change will also affect infectious disease occurrence

“We don’t realize the impact that global warming and climate changes are having in our society. It is now affecting viruses that are in places that they were never before,” said Bottler.