What Is a Viral Infection?

By Michele C. Hollow @michelechollow
September 25, 2017

Viral infections have been compared to parasites. Read more here about what is a viral infection and learn how to treat and prevent them.

Think of a viral infection as a parasite. In this case, the virus attacks your body’s cells in order to reproduce and survive. In the process, the viral infection damages and destroys healthy cells, making you ill.

What is a viral infection?

Viral infections are small germs that cause infectious diseases such as common colds, the flu, and warts. More severe cases cause HIV/AIDS, smallpox, and Ebola.

Viral infection points of attack are in the cells found in your respiratory system, throat, and liver. It’s not always dire because when you get a viral infection your immune system often kicks in and successfully fights it.

Viral infections can cause a viral upper respiratory infection, another term for a common cold. Upper respiratory infections (URIs) are contagious and occur in your upper respiratory tract, which includes your nose, throat, pharynx, larynx, and bronchi. Other types of upper respiratory infections include sinusitis, pharyngitis, epiglottitus, and tracheobronchitis.


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Symptoms of an upper respiratory infection vary. If the virus is in your respiratory system it can affect your lungs, nose, and throat. Viral infections are contagious and usually are spread when you inhale droplets that contain virus particles. If an infected person sneezes, coughs, has a cold and shares food with you, kisses you, or even touches your hand, you can catch the virus.

The symptoms for an upper respiratory infection include:

  • Sneezing, congestion, and runny nose
  • Coughing
  • Sore throat or hoarseness
  • Mild headache
  • Body aches
  • Fatigue
  • Fever

The virus can also cause lower respiratory infections like pneumonia and bronchiolitis, a common lung infection in young children and infants that starts off like a common cold and can progress to coughing, wheezing, and sometimes difficulty breathing. Most cases can be treated at home.

In addition to upper respiratory infections like the common cold, flu, and viral skin infections such as cold sores, chicken pox, and shingles, more severe diseases caused by viruses include HIV/AIDS, smallpox, Ebola, hepatitis A (which affects the liver), sexually transmitted viral infections (such as hepatitis B, genital herpes, and human papillomavirus (HPV)), West Nile, and viral meningitis.

Viral infections also play a role in causing cancer. It’s not a direct cause; it happens when viral infections destroy and change cells, which affect the DNA of host cells. These mutations that occur to the DNA of host cells contribute to several different types of cancer.

How long does a viral infection last?

The length of a viral infection depends on the specific type of virus you’re fighting. Most viral infections last from several days to two weeks. Some may last longer. Some viruses are latent, meaning they can remain dormant for several years or not emerge at all. Viruses that cause latent infections include herpes, hepatitis B and C, and HIV.

A good example of a latent viral infection is varicella (chicken pox), which is caused by varicella-zoster virus. It’s a member of the herpes virus group. After getting chicken pox, all of the symptoms can vanish; however, the virus stays in your body as a latent infection. It may or may not appear several years later in the form of herpes zoster (shingles).

How do you stop a viral infection?

Viral infections usually clear up on their own without any treatments. In some cases, you may want to treat the symptoms, which won’t cure the virus; symptoms could be a runny nose or cough. You can take over-the-counter medicines to alleviate congestion and any aches and pains associated with a cold.

Treatment can be more challenging for some types of viral infections because viruses are so small and easily reproduce inside cells. Plus, many viruses have become drug-resistant to antibiotics and other antiviral medications.

Despite this, your doctor may prescribe antiviral medications, which are most effective if they’re taken early in the course of your initial viral infection. You doctor can also discuss what is a viral infection and will be able to guide you on the right course of action.


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March 26, 2020

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN