Viruses can lay dormant, also referred to as "viral latency" which means a virus has the ability to remain inactive for a period of time within its host. Since the virus has found a home within its cell, it only needs to be triggered to become active.
The five most common dormant diseases include the following.
Latent Tuberculosis Infection
Infectious Mononucleosis, aka “Mono,” is caused by the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV). The virus is transmitted through body fluids, primarily saliva, often due to sharing drinks, toothbrushes, or eating food off the same plate of people who are infected.
Although most infections of EBV occur in childhood, adolescents and adults can still become infected. When an individual is exposed to EBV, symptoms will not show until after about 4 to 7 weeks. The symptoms of sore throat, tender neck lymph nodes, fever, and fatigue can resolve in a couple of weeks, with some people experiencing fatigue for weeks to months.
After you get infected with mono, the virus stays in your body for life. This doesn’t mean you will always be contagious, but it can resurface from time to time, particularly with a weakened immune system which would put others at risk.
Latent Tuberculosis Infection
Tuberculosis (TB) is a disease caused by a type of bacteria called Mycobacterium tuberculosis that is spread from person to person through the air. An infection with TB leads to an illness that most commonly affects the lungs, though other parts of the body can be affected.
When someone who has active or infectious TB coughs or sneezes, the germ mycobacterium tuberculosis stays in the air. If someone breathes in the air that has the germ, they can become infected with TB. However, not everyone that had a TB infection becomes sick.
There are two types of TB-related conditions: latent TB infection and active TB disease. Latent TB occurs when a person has been exposed to the TB bacteria and the body was able to contain the bacteria from further multiplying in the lungs.
The key here is that the body’s immune system is able to fight the TB infection. These individuals typically show no symptoms at all, and can only be diagnosed via the TB skin test.
The good news is that they are not infectious and don’t carry the risk of spreading the disease. However, for people who have a weakened immune system, the risk of developing active TB increases drastically.
This is why it’s important to get treated for latent TB, particularly if you have a positive TB blood test or skin test since active TB can be fatal.
Herpes simplex virus (HSV-1) is a highly contagious virus that causes what is commonly called cold sores. Cold sores are painful blisters that occur inside the mouth and on the lips. The virus gets its name from the Greek word “herpēs” which means “to creep or crawl.”
The HSV-1 virus that causes cold sores spreads very easily from person to person through kissing, sharing utensils, oral sex or other close contact. With over 90% of Americans being exposed to this virus, it is hard to avoid. There is no cure for HSV and it will remain in your body forever. When a person is initially infected, they may not show symptoms.
When the virus is activated, usually during a time of stress, people may experience a tingling, itching or burning sensation before the symptoms of painful blisters, or open sores begin to show. This is when they can be treated. Read more about the best ways to prevent and treat cold sores.
Prevention with herpes is key, especially during an active flare. Avoid oral contact with others, sharing objects that touched your mouth, abstain from oral sex, and if you have genital herpes, avoid sexual activity.
If you had chickenpox, the virus that causes shingles is already avoiding your immune system. Shingles is an infection caused by the Varicella-zoster virus (VZV), the same virus that is responsible for chickenpox.
After someone recovers from chickenpox, the VZV virus hides out in an inactive form in the body. The virus can then become active several years later and cause shingles.
Shingles affects the nerves with signs and symptoms of the infection including:
Increased skin sensitivity
Painful red rashes
Severe Itching and burning sensation
These symptoms may last 3 – 5 weeks, but there are medications that can shorten the duration and severity of the illness. Some complications of shingles include post-herpetic neuralgia, an intense long-term nerve pain in the area where the rash of shingles appeared.
You can not get shingles from someone who has the rash. However, if you have never had chickenpox or received the chickenpox vaccine, it is possible for you to get the VZV virus and become sick with chickenpox. Once you are infected with the virus (or had the chickenpox), you are susceptible to shingles at any moment, especially when your defenses are down.
Human papillomavirus, also known as HPV, is a virus that can cause skin or mucous membrane growths (warts). Some warts can occur on the skin, the genitals, or cause some forms of cancer.
WHPV is estimated to infect 75% of all men and women. The virus infects the top layer of skin after direct or indirect contact with the virus and remains present in your system.
There are over 120 varieties of HPV, and they are classified into “low-risk”- those that cause common and genital warts, and ‘high-risk”-those that can cause certain cervical, anal, and even head and neck cancers.
In most cases, your body does have the ability to fight the virus since most infections are self-limiting, asymptomatic, or unrecognized, and can disappear in as little as two years. However, the infection does not go away on its own in some people, leading to other health problems.
An infection of HPV in the genitals can lead to cervical cancer, vaginal cancer, or penile cancer. If you are a woman above the age of 25, talk to your doctor about getting HPV testing with your pap smear.
People between the ages of 9 and 26 can protect themselves against HPV by getting the HPV vaccine. The vaccine only works if you get it before you get infected with HPV so the younger you get it the better. If you get the vaccine before becoming infected it will protect you from getting the types of HPV infections that can cause certain cancers and genital warts.
How can bacteria lay dormant in the body?
Bacteria can lay dormant in the body even after treatment for an infection. These bacteria can eventually wake up and become active causing a flare-up from a reoccurring infection.
What causes a virus to become dormant?
A virus can remain dormant after the infection is exposed to the body. A protein called "interferon gamma" keeps the virus inactive within the body. The protein keeps an eye out on the virus to make sure nothing is disrupted. The virus then hides in its host until it is triggered.
How are dormant viruses reactivated?
A virus is triggered or reawakened by a compromise to the immune system. This is why most viruses “wake up” when we are stressed or ill-a time when our immune system is weak.
Stay Up To Date On Your Health
The best way to combat any virus is to make sure you stay updated on current vaccinations and to regularly see your health care provider. It’s important to know what a dormant virus is but also important to make sure you are powering a healthy immune system to fight any infection should you become sick with a virus.
RxSaver Editors are wellness enthusiasts who help you learn how you can save the most on prescription medication costs and other health-related topics.
Meron Hirpa, MD
Meron Hirpa, MD, is an Internal Medicine Public Health Physician at the Cincinnati Health Department. Dr. Hirpa obtained her medical degree from the University of Florida College of Medicine and completed her residency training in Internal Medicine at Johns Hopkins. She is board-certified in Internal Medicine and holds specialized training in urban health, global health, quality improvement, and health disparities. Dr. Hirpa treats a broad spectrum of illnesses in adults. She is dedicated to patient-centered care and equity and is passionate about closing the healthcare gap among different groups. Towards that end, she led award-winning diversity and inclusion initiatives in the healthcare space. In addition to treating her patients, Dr. Hirpa conducts theoretical and clinical research and publishes in academic journals. Dr. Hirpa frequently appears in radio and television programs for healthcare commentaries.
The information on this site is generalized and is not medical advice. It is intended to supplement, not substitute for, the expertise and judgment of your healthcare professional. Always seek the advice of your healthcare professional with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard seeking advice or delay in seeking treatment because of something you have read on our site. RxSaver makes no warranty as to the accuracy, reliability or completeness of this information.
If you are in crisis or you think you may have a medical emergency, call your doctor or 911 immediately.
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