What is a Virus?

What is a Virus?

Every child ever born, indeed every one of us, will experience an infection with a virus in our lives, on average about 8 a year.  These infections cause the vast majority of colds, flus, stomach flus, fevers, aches, and so it makes sense that as parents, you know what is causing all this misery, and why it always seems that nothing helps.

What is a virus?

It turns out that a virus is a very, very peculiar thing.  It is in someways alive, since like all living things, it reproduces.  But in other ways it is not alive, since unlike living things, it an exist in a dried crystal form for nearly forever.

My own sense is that a virus is a form of information.  You might wonder, how could knowing something make you so sick?  It turns out the sort of information that is a virus is the information that commands and controls processes, in this case the genetic codes of our body's cells.

Every virus contains just two elements- a strand of genes and a coating of protein.  Each of these elements has one simple purpose.  

The coating of protein picks the locks of the cell and allows the strand of genes entry to the cell's genes.

The strand of genes also has only one purpose- to force the cell to stop what it was doing and turn all its resources towards making copies of the strand of genes and coating of protein.  Once zillions of the strands of genes and coatings of protein are reproduced by the hijacked cell, zillions of new viruses are unleashed to repeat the process, zillions of times.

What does a virus do?

Often, the takeover of the cell is complete and the reproduction of the virus is so explosive that the cell is completely destroyed in the process.  More rarely, the takeover of the cell and reproduction of the virus is very slow and does not kill the cell, just distracts it from its regular duties.

The pattern of slow control over the cell, leaving it alive but a touch altered is seen in very few acute viral infections, mainly in a set called retroviral infections, the most famous of which is AIDS.  AIDS is so destructive precisely because the virus messes with the cell without destroying it, leaving it in place to malfunction.

But for every single cold and flu virus, the pattern is complete cell destruction.  This causes a week or two of very real misery, but at least the infected cell is cleared away and what follows is completely normal function and health.

The heart of the usual virus experience is in very many ways exactly like having a burn.   Cold and flu viruses, when all is said and done, simply burn off the lining of whatever the virus is infecting.  If the virus gets into the cells lining the nose, then when zillions of viruses pop out of those cells, they are destroyed.  And then they do the same thing to the cells right next to the ones just exploded.  So like a slow burning flame, the  infection burns slowly across the lining leaving the lining of the nose essentially destroyed, just like if it was burned.

The analogy continues, for the fuse once lit in the nose typically burns down the throat and into the lungs.

Nearly every symptom of a virus can be traced to its essential nature as a burn.  Whatever is burned defines the problems experienced.  Just like if you have a burn on your hand, your hand hurts but not your foot, if you have a virus in your nose, your nose hurts and weeps fluid, but not your chest.   

Here is how the location of a viral infection defines your symptoms:

If the virus is in your nose you have a sore, runny nose, and lots of sneezing as a result.
If the virus is in your throat, you have a sore throat.
If the virus is in your lungs, you have a cough.
If the virus is precisely on your vocal cords, you have a barking cough, or hoarseness, or croup.
If the virus is in your eyes, you have pink eye (with redness and mucus, that can accumulate, and mat, but not cause constant pus dripping).
If the virus is in your stomach, you have vomiting, and stomach ache.
If the virus is in your intestine, you have diarrhea, and stomach ache.

The virus is doing the same thing in every spot, causing the lining of cells to be destroyed as more virus is made, but the experience varies according to which lining is being wrecked.

Whereever the lining is infected, some things happen to the body, caused by the body's attacks.  Those symptoms would be fever, achiness, lethargy, loss of appetite, increased or decreased sleep.  These are the famous symptoms of viral infection, and they are not caused by the virus alone.  All these symptoms can be created by giving someone the chemicals found in our white blood cells, stuff like cytokines and interleukins.  this is what make us all feel so miserable when we get sick from a virus.

How to Treat a Virus, how to Get Rid of a Virus?

Since having a viral infection with colds and flus is very much like a burn, we are stuck with the same frustration treating a virus as we are a burn- namely, waiting for it to heal.

Think about a cold.  As we just saw, a virus infecting the nose, throat, and lung burns off the lining of these parts of our body.  Once burned off they ooze fluid, just like any burn would.  Initially the fluid is a clear fluid, but over time it starts to contain elements of healing tissue, as the burned off tissue regrows, making the oozing fluid more thick, more mucusy, and more yellow and green.

To get rid of the runny nose, sore throat, and most of all- cough- that this process creates, two things have to take place- all the remaining virus needs to be destroyed so no new burns are created, and the already burned tissue must be immediately healed.

I am all for both of these events happening, but there is one reason they cannot be quickly made to happen:  no one has yet invented a substance that would either kill a virus [and leave your cells alone], or rapidly heal a burn.

Now, that does not stop companies from peddling products that claim to solve the problems viruses cause.  One ruse most often used is to admit they cannot actually stop a cough or get rid of a sore throat, but they might offer temporary relief.  That's not a hard thing to do, since even halting a cough for few seconds might qualify as helping.

But time and again, whenever cold and cough remedies are tested against water, water does as well or better than them all.  In fact, in March of 2011, the FDA launched an investigation against 500 cold and cough remedies for fraud.

So, if no medication has yet been invented that would kill a virus or heal the burn and inflammation it causes, what to do?

Fortunately, there are things that can be done, and they all are about comforting:
1.  Keeping warm.
2.  Having warm, misty air around
3. Sitting up
4.  Sipping soothing liquids
5.  For sore throats, ice cream and popsicles.
6.  Ibuprofen.  (Avoid tylenol, a question on its power to increase the risk of asthma is being investigated.
7.  Anything that distracts and comforts.

Keep in mind that if the goal is comforting, the judge of whether it works is the person being comforted.
For example, a humidifier might make one person feel much better but might bother someone else, simply ask your child or observe if it is comforting or irritating to them.

What's the Point of Viruses
Very briefly, there appears to be a very large component of our DNA and RNA, our genes, that has something to do with viruses.  Viruses have been transporting bits of genes from cell to cell across every form of life since the beginning of life.  There are major viruses that infect only bacteria, for example.
Over the eons, it is now estimated that as much as 60% of our genes originated in the viral sweep of DNA across the whole range of life.  That means quite a bit of who we are, and how we became humans originated in the swirl of information that is the virus.

So as we ache, suffer, and groan from our colds and flus, it may help to keep in mind this may be the creaking of a very necessary machinery.

How to you know your illness is a virus, not something more serious, or treatable?
For coughs and colds and plain old fevers, the vast, vast majority of such illnesses are viruses.
They cause undue agonies, but no lasting harm.
They seem to last forever, but always end.

There are three common bacterial conditions seen in colds that can be treated with antibiotics:
1.  Strep throat- usually causes a sore throat as a key symptom, usually not so much cough
2.  Ear infection- causes bad ear pain
3.  Pneumonia- suspected when your child struggles to breathe when not coughing

So if the sore throat is more scratchy than sore and seems due to a bad cough, and your ears do not hurt, and you are breathing in and out of your chest well when not coughing, it's likely a virus.

What would be a sign the illness is dangerous, like a bad pneumonia or meningitis?
These three signs:
1.  Stiff neck
2.  Can't breathe in and out of your chest without a lot of struggle.
3.  Severe pain

Antibiotics kill bacteria, they do nothing to viruses.  You can put a bottle of virus in a vat of antibiotic and they will live very comfortably there.

Bacteria are radically different than viruses.  Viruses as we saw are little packets of information, not really alive.  Bacteria are like us, they are cells that live and eat.  Their chemistry is different than ours and antibiotics wreck their chemistry but not ours.

That is why antibiotics don't work when you try to treat a viral infection with them.  

Not only do they not work, but since the vast, vast majority of colds and flus are viral, using antibiotics to treat them exposes millions and billions of people to these drugs for no very good reason.  Worse, such mass and constant exposure of our species to antibiotics has caused real, observable harm.  Many tens, likely hundreds of thousands of people have died as a result of this silly practice, from emergence of resistant bacteria and proliferation of harmful ones like C diff.

At Advanced Pediatrics we remain committed to not giving people drugs that do not good and can cause harm.  Giving someone an antibiotic when we know you have a virus will not help at all, and could cause harm, so we don't do it.

1.  A virus is a little packet of information that burns the lining of various parts of your body.
2.  That burn can only heal, it cannot be suddenly cleared with medicine.
3.  Comfort measures are the key help for our kids suffering with viruses, and the best way to judge if a comfort measure works is by asking your child if it helps.
4.  When it comes to colds and flus, the vast, vast majority of them are caused by viruses and so antibiotics to do not help.
5.   Cold and cough remedies are products riddled with fraud.  None have been proven to work any better than water.
6.  The key signs an illness is no longer viral and now may be dangerous are: Stiff Neck, Trouble Breathing when Not Coughing, Severe Pain.

All of us at Advanced Pediatrics hope your time with viral illnesses is as brief as possible.  We stand ready to help.  And hope you and your family have a wonderful holiday season and a Happy and Healthy New Year!

Dr. Arthur Lavin

*Disclaimer* The comments contained in this electronic source of information do not constitute and are not designed to imply that they constitute any form of individual medical advice. The information provided is purely for informational purposes only and not relevant to any person's particular medical condition or situation. If you have any medical concerns about yourself or your family please contact your physician immediately. In order to provide our patients the best uninfluenced information that science has to offer,we do not accept samples of drugs, advertising tchotchkes, money, food, or any item from outside vendors.
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