What is a virus?

Adapted from the Blog article on viral illness from 21/04/2019.


Setting the scene


So you've been up in the night, maybe all night, with a poorly, feverish, coughing mess of a poor child, and you finally decide- "Enough is enough! I can't take this anymore! The Calpol is not helping, we are all miserable. I'm taking them to the Doctor."

After the phone calls and the waiting, you finally make it in. You explain your situation and even manage to remember your own name and your child's date of birth (winning despite sleep deprivation). You recount the coughing fits and the various colours of the various liquids emerging from your little one... the doctor gives them a once over, gathers their thoughts, and says:

'Don't worry, it's just a virus, it shouldn't get any worse from here, it should clear up in a few days, feel free to keep giving Calpol if they are upset and have a fever, you really don't need any antibiotics for this one...'

Cue inner meltdown and a desperate giving up on all hope of sleep for the next few days.

But we know too many antibiotics are bad right? So why did my friend get them straight away? Why did my other friend have to nag her doctor for three weeks before she got them and they worked? What even is a virus anyway?

One of the most amazing things about the body is that when you understand a bit about how it works, the symptoms (the different bad sensations) of sickness start to make sense as well. Understanding kids' health a bit more means that rather than being unsure or afraid about what is going on, it's possible to rationalise, explain and deal with things confidently. 

So what is a Virus?

Viruses are a massive family of germs ranging from the harmless (some don't even affect us!) to the serious. Some are even deadly (think HIV, Ebola, Measles etc). But the viruses that GPs are usually talking about when they say "viral illness" are the mild(ish) ones that cause coughs and colds. In fact, 95% of coughs, colds and sore throats are caused by viruses! (1)








How often do we get a viral cold?

Kids get on average 5-6 cold-type 'viral illnesses' per year. Interestingly, this is shown to be higher if they attend nursery or daycare(3) - whereas adults should get only about 2 per year (2).

How big are they?

Cold viruses are tiny, and I mean TINY.

Scientists aren't even sure if they can class them as alive, as they are basically just a piece of genetic code wearing a coat.

How do they 'live'?

They can't survive outside of people, but they can 'hibernate' for about 24hrs on places like your phone or door handle, waiting for you to come along and pick them up. Eek!

What do they look like?

They are also weirdly pretty, they have stars on them! Depending on how geekily-inclined you are, you could have a good old art and craft session on the theme of viruses... glue, tissue paper, paint, old recycling... "ta-da, it's an adenovirus Mummy!"

(For a great picture of the common cold virus click here.)

For more info on viruses check out our pages on How cold viruses work, and How to prevent them.