What is a virus?
With all the information coming out about SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the disease COVID-19, it is helpful to understand what exactly viruses are and why they infect us. In this article I will explain where they come from, how the body responds to fight a virus, and how we can help the body to respond to illness in the healthiest way possible.
Why viruses need us to live
The sole purpose of a virus is to infect another organism - animals, plants, fungus, or bacteria. Viruses can’t live or reproduce without first infecting a living host cell. So after infecting a host, such as a human, the virus makes billions of copies of itself by hijacking the person’s cells and using them to replicate. Then once replicated, the virus continues to spread from person to person.
What do viruses look like and what are they made of?
Each single virus particle (virion) is a small packet of genetic material, either DNA or RNA, wrapped in a coating of protein (capsid) and sometimes topped with another layer of lipids (envelope). Coronaviruses are enveloped RNA viruses.
Knowing the structure of the virus is important information because it tells us where the virus is most vulnerable. For example, soap breaks down the lipid layer and pulls the virus apart, similar to how soap breaks down oil when you are washing your dishes. This is why washing your hands frequently for 20 seconds with soap is so effective against SARS-CoV-2.
The structure of a virus is also one reason why antibiotics are not effective to treat a viral illness. Many antibiotics, including penicillin, work by attacking the wall around the bacteria. Viruses do not have a cell wall.
How big are viruses and why does it matter?
Viruses come in various shapes and sizes. They can be circular, cylindrical, string-like, or studded with spikes like the coronaviruses. SARS-CoV-2 has a round shape and a size of 60-140 nanometers. To put that into perspective there are 25.4 million nanometers in one inch or 10 million nanometers in 1 centimeter.
The size of a virus is important because this information determines what types of barriers may be most effective at stopping the virus from entering your body through your nose and mouth when you wear a face mask.
SARS-CoV-2 is spread by the respiratory droplets from the nose and mouth of an infected person coming in contact with another person through their nose, mouth, or eyes. Cambridge scientists tested particles five times smaller than SARS-CoV-2 and compared homemade masks made of different materials to surgical masks. The top four most effective household materials were masks made from vacuum cleaner bags, tea towels, cotton, and antimicrobial pillowcases.
What are novel (new) viruses and how do they emerge?
Novel viruses are simply viruses that have not been seen before, such as SARS-CoV-2.
Zoonotic diseases are viruses of animals that have gone on to infect a human. This is accomplished by the animal virus undergoing a genetic mutation that has allowed the virus to successfully infect a new species. Typically, the genetic material of animal viruses are too dissimilar to create an infection in humans.
On rare occasions animal coronaviruses infect people, which is the case with SARS-CoV-2. The animal of origination is likely a bat which may have jumped to other animal hosts before it successfully infected a human.
What does it mean when a virus mutates?
Mutations are a natural part of every virus life cycle. RNA-based viruses, such as SARS-CoV-2, are genetically unstable and mutate at a much faster rate.
After infecting a new species, viruses continue to mutate and these mutations can make a virus either more or less virulent. There is a possibility that certain mutations could make future vaccines less effective or allow for the reinfection of someone who has already had the virus and developed immunity. However, most viral experts agree that this is a highly unlikely, but not impossible, scenario.
Why are novel viruses different from known viruses, such as influenza and the common cold?
The longer a virus has been around the more likely a portion of the population has natural or vaccine-created immunity to the virus (known as herd immunity) and effective treatments have been found for those who are sick.
For example, when someone is sick with the flu we know the likely course of the illness, the complications that may arise, as well as the effective treatments. With a new virus there is no natural or vaccine-created immunity so the virus can spread among the population very rapidly and treatments for those who are sick are unknown.
How does your body respond when you are exposed to a virus?
The job of the immune system is to determine if what it comes in contact with is safe or dangerous. When something is recognized as dangerous, such as in the case of a virus, your immune system attempts to destroy it and it also activates an inflammatory response that will assist the body in attacking the virus.
In the beginning stages of the inflammatory response your body creates cytokines, which are chemical messengers that communicate information about the virus to the rest of the body. These chemical messengers have specific functions such as raising your body temperature and creating a fever.
If the first line of defense against the virus is not enough then there is another part of our immune system (the adaptive immune system) that takes longer to respond but is designed to target the virus more accurately. This is also when the body creates antibodies.
When you are exposed to a virus for the first time you make antibodies against that specific virus. The job of an antibody is to tag a virus for destruction by your immune system. Then, if you are exposed to the same virus again in the future these antibodies have a memory and will ramp up to help you to fight the infection often times more accurately the second time.
Antibodies remain in the body for different amounts of time depending on the type of virus. And, although it appears that people who are infected with COVID-19 do create antibodies we don’t know how long they will last.
What determines the type of illness a virus produces?
The symptoms that the body produces and the illness that results for any given virus depends on which body tissues are affected when the virus attaches and the way that the immune system responds to the infection.
For example, coronaviruses bind to cells in the body through the receptors called angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2), which are found in high levels in the lungs, intestines, kidneys, and blood vessels. Therefore, symptoms are produced in the areas of the body with high numbers of ACE2 receptors. This is why dry cough and shortness of breath are characteristic symptoms of COVID-19 when the virus enters the body through the nose and makes its way into the respiratory system.
Important note on your daily medications:
If you are taking a medication that works by increasing ACE2 receptors in the body you may be at increased risk for contracting COVID-19 and developing complications. This is currently being studied. People taking NSAIDs such as ibuprofen, certain medications for type II diabetes (TZD), and those on blood pressure medications (ARBs and ACE inhibitors) should continue to discuss this with their local physician.
What is a fever and why is it important
Fever is the body's normal response to infection. Your body temperature increases to create a hostile environment for the virus. High temperature triggers the body’s production of infection-fighting white blood cells and inhibits the growth of viruses and bacteria.
Lowering a fever with medications such as paracetamol/acetaminophen, aspirin, or ibuprofen, affects your body’s natural ability to respond to the infection. It has also been the observation of French doctors that the treatment of COVID-19 patients with anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen and Aspirin, may worsen some patients and lead to pneumonia.
Short-lived mild fevers come and go without any long-term complications, however, the aches and pains that you feel during your illness may be in part due to the fever. So, lowering your fever with medication may improve comfort but will not help with the virus to run its course. In fact, it may lengthen the amount of time that you are sick.
It is very important to stay hydrated when you have a fever! Dehydration during illness can lead to serious complications. Adequate water intake (about 1 L per 30 kg of body weight for the average healthy person) and minerals from drinking broth are very important when body fluids are being lost from sweating, vomiting, and diarrhea.
Note: Infants of <3 months are an exception and should always be seen by their doctor with any elevation of temperature. Do not give children <18 years of age aspirin due to being linked to the deadly disease Reye's syndrome. If you are part of a high risk population or have an unrelenting high fever you should contact your doctor immediately.
What treatments are available for viruses?
Developing a vaccine for a new virus is a lengthy process often taking 18 months or more. Antiviral medications are also difficult to develop because viruses are highly adaptive and replicate quickly giving them many chances to mutate in a way that may make them resistant to the medication.
However, medications used against other viral infections can be tested to see if they are effective against the new virus. Luckily, the process to develop a vaccine for SARS-CoV-2 may be accelerated due to the ability to repurpose some vaccines that were in development for SARS and MERS.
How to support your immune system to prevent viral illness
The basics to creating a healthy immune system include:
Getting 7+ hours of sleep nightly
Reducing your intake of refined sugar and processed food
Staying well hydrated with water
Prioritizing daily exercise and movement
Engaging in regular stress management
Getting outdoors in nature, fresh air, and sunshine
Limiting alcohol intake
Although there has not yet been research done on specific vitamins, minerals, and herbs that are effective in the prevention and treatment of COVID-19, there is research in the effectiveness against other viruses such as other coronaviruses, influenza, and the common cold. A list of products to prevent viral illness may include vitamin C, vitamin D, zinc, elderberry syrup, echinacea, as well as eating a diet that includes garlic, onion, ginger, mushrooms, and colorful fruits and vegetables rich in potent anti-inflammatory compounds.
SARS-CoV-2 can multiply for days in the nose and throat before it moves to the lungs, so I also recommend that people use a nasal irrigation method daily, as well as using zinc lozenges, throat sprays, and gargling a solution of water and antimicrobial herbs.
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