A viral infection is a proliferation of a harmful virus inside the body. Viruses cannot reproduce without the assistance of a host. Viruses infect a host by introducing their genetic material into the cells and hijacking the cell’s internal machinery to make more virus particles. With an active viral infection, a virus makes copies of itself and bursts the host cell (killing it) to set the newly-formed virus particles free.
In other cases, virus particles “bud” off the host cell over a period of time before killing the host cell. Either way, new virus particles are then free to infect other cells. Symptoms of the viral illness occur as a result of cell damage, tissue destruction, and the associated immune response.
Certain viruses — like the ones that cause chickenpox and cold sores — may be inactive or “latent” after the initial infection. For example, you may have a cold sore that erupts and then heals. The cold sore virus remains in your cells in a dormant state. At a later date, a trigger, such as stress, sunlight, or something else, may reactivate the virus and lead to new symptoms. The virus makes more copies of itself, releases new virus particles, and kills more host cells.
COMMON VIRAL INFECTIONS
- Molluscum contagiosum
Molluscum contagiosum causes small, flesh-colored bumps most often in children ages 1 to 10 years old; however, people of any age can acquire the virus. The bumps usually disappear without treatment, usually in 6 to 12 months.
Herpes simplex virus-1 (HSV-1) is the common virus that causes cold sores. It’s transmitted through saliva by kissing or sharing food or drink with an infected individual. Sometimes, HSV-1 causes genital herpes. An estimated 85% of people in the US have HSV-1 by the time they are in their 60s.
- Varicella-zoster virus
Varicella-zoster virus (VZV) causes itchy, oozing blisters, fatigue, and high fever characteristic of chickenpox. The chickenpox vaccine is 98% effective at preventing infection. People who have had chickenpox (or in extremely rare instances, people who have received the chickenpox vaccine) are at risk for developing shingles, an illness caused by the same virus. Shingles can occur at any age, but it occurs most often in people age 60 or older.