What Is a Virus?

In January and February, coronavirus was a prominent topic as this enervating illness spread quickly from China where it originated throughout the world, with cases cropping up in the US. Flights were banned, people were quarantined.

Like bird flu and H1N1 viruses of previous winters, coronavirus is this winter’s “boogeyman.” The specific outbreak is technically known as 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV), according to the Centers for Disease Control. The CDC explained, ”Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that are common in many different species of animals, including camels, cattle, cats, and bats. Rarely, animal coronaviruses can infect people and then spread between people such as MERS, SARS and now with 2019-nCoV.”

It was first identified in Wuhan, in China’s Hubei Province. This is a new virus that is a respiratory illness, characterized by fever, cough and shortness of breath; symptoms may occur between two and 14 days after exposure; typical transmission occurs in proximity of six feet or less (considered close contact). A distinct and worrisome complication of 2019-nCoV is pneumonia in both lungs, which, said the CDC, many patients have developed.

Another distinction of 2019-nCoV is that it can be spread from people who don’t have symptoms. A recent report in the New England Journal of Medicine asserted, “The fact that asymptomatic persons are potential sources of 2019-nCoV infection may warrant a reassessment of transmission dynamics of the current outbreak.” The first case of this coronavirus in the US is a 35-year-old man who traveled from Wuhan, China to Snohomish County, Washington state, and who was thus confirmed as having 2019-nCoV on January 20, after four days of a cough and fever.

Coughing, fever, aches, fatigue. This sounds like a recipe for bacterial infection. A virus and a bacterial infection both act the same sometimes, which is why most doctors and walk-in clinics would prefer to prescribe an antibiotic, just in case. If you don’t start to feel better within two days of taking an antibiotic, most likely what is running amok in your system is caused by a virus, not a bad bacterium.

The Anatomy of a Virus

Do a Google image search of “virus under microscope” and you will be amazed at the ironic beauty of these structures. They tend to be round with protruding spikes topped by tiny balls. Others are quite alien-cryptid looking—characterized by a tall column topped with an oblong ball is perched on splayed arachnid legs. These are known as bacteriophages (or “phages”) and are viruses that infect bacteria.

According to one source, a virus is a microscopic parasitic entity that is also acellular (meaning it is not composed of cells) and much smaller than bacteria. It is able to reproduce once it penetrates a host cell, taking over and using the cell’s mechanisms of replication. Viruses have a superpower ability of mutation, allowing them to adapt and change rapidly.

There are four main types of viruses: helical, polyhedral, enveloped and complex. They either have RNA or DNA but never both.

Authors of this published review explain, “Recently, the risk of viral infection has dramatically increased owing to changes in human ecology such as global warming and an increased geographical movement of people and goods. However, the efficacy of vaccines and remedies for infectious diseases is limited by the high mutation rates of viruses, especially, RNA viruses.”

Once a virus encounters its host (you or a different animal) through inhalation, swallowing, in eyes or through skin, it attaches to your cells, after which it enters and moves to the site where it replicate. It will then replicate and then mature in the cell, after which the host cell releases it. And you feel better.

In other words, think of a virus like it’s a squatter in your home, creating havoc, disruption and a mess until it leaves.

Support Optimal Immune Function

The unvarnished truth is this: viral infections are NOT preventable. But you can reduce the opportunities for a virus to bloom inside your cells. This is where focusing on boosting optimal immune function comes into play.

If you read our blog with any frequency, by now you know the healthy lifestyle drill—plenty of water, try to get about 6 to 8 hours of sleep, eat a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, grains/fiber and lean proteins, refrain from overindulgence in alcohol, ensure you take your multi, some extra vitamin C, zinc, vitamin D and antioxidants, and get regular exercise.

And you may have heard that washing hands often is useful. Sounds rather innocuous, but there is new published research that examined the best way to do this for optimal protection against viral attack. This influenza research team concedes that “Both antiseptic hand rubbing (AHR) using ethanol-based disinfectants (EBDs) and antiseptic hand washing (AHW) are important means of infection control to prevent seasonal influenza A virus (IAV) outbreaks.”

This study revealed that no matter what you may use, viral activity is most active when mucus is not dried; when dried, the virus is deactivated. So, in short, while disinfectants and handwashing is viable, one needs to be conscious of droplets and being in contact with mucosal matter to ensure it is not internalized. And that said, the good news is that hand hygiene that works best is washing hands with an antiseptic soap for at least 30 seconds, which will deactivate (kill) most mucus-containing viruses.

Probiotics don’t prevent viruses—no ingestibles can. But along with the aforementioned good health habits, adding probiotics can support the function of your immune system to better fend off an incoming virus seeking cellular shelter.

One comprehensive review analyzed the impact of several probiotics and paraprobiotics (sterilized probiotics) in cases of virally induced infectious events. The authors found unique roles of probiotics and paraprobiotics in how they eliminate viruses—via stimulation of type 1 interferon production. They concluded that “probiotics and/or paraprobiotics are expected to be among the rational adjunctive options for the treatment of various viral diseases.”

One economic analysis was based on two meta-analyses published by the York Health Economics Consortium (YHEC) and Cochrane reported the efficacy of probiotics in reducing incidence and duration of respiratory tract infections (RTI), number of antibiotic courses, and days absent from work.

The goal of the economic analysis was to provide a clear picture of the potential health-economic impact of probiotics on RTI-associated events and expenses in the US primary care setting. In their abstract, the authors revealed that their “analysis showed that generalized probiotic intake in the US population for 2017-2018 would have allowed cost savings for the health care payer of $4.6 million based on the YHEC scenario and $373 million for the Cochrane scenario, by averting 19 million and 54.5 million RTI sick days, respectively, compared to no probiotics.”


Getting a flu vaccine every year or every other year may be a good idea as well. Some people who have had the flu vaccine have reported not getting sick when others in the household or workplace do. A vaccine and/or a wellness-oriented lifestyle will be the halo of protection against corona or other viruses.

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