A virus is a biological agent that reproduces inside the cells of living hosts. When infected by a virus, a host cell is forced to produce thousands of identical copies of the original virus at an extraordinary rate. Unlike most living things, viruses do not have cells that divide; new viruses are assembled in the infected host cell. But unlike still simpler infectious agents, viruses contain genes, which gives them the ability to mutate and evolve. Over 5,000 species of viruses have been discovered.
The origins of viruses are unclear: some may have evolved from plasmids—pieces of DNA that can move between cells—while others may have evolved from bacteria. A virus consists of two or three parts: genes, made from either DNA or RNA, long molecules that carry genetic information; a protein coat that protects the genes; and in some viruses, an envelope of fat that surrounds the protein coat and is used, in combination with specific receptors, to enter a new host cell. Viruses vary in shape from the simple helical and icosahedral to more complex structures. Viruses range in size from 20 to 300 nanometres; it would take 33,000 to 500,000 of them, side by side, to stretch to 1 centimetre (0.39 in).
Viruses spread in many ways. Just as many viruses are very specific as to which host species or tissue they attack, each species of virus relies on a particular method for propagation. Plant viruses are often spread from plant to plant by insects and other organisms, known as vectors. Some viruses of animals, including humans, are spread by exposure to infected bodily fluids. Viruses such as influenza are spread through the air by droplets of moisture when people cough or sneeze. Viruses such as norovirus are transmitted by the faecal–oral route, which involves the contamination of hands, food and water. Rotavirus is often spread by direct contact with infected children. The human immunodeficiency virus, HIV, is transmitted by bodily fluids transferred during sex. Others, such as the Dengue virus, are spread by blood-sucking insects.
Viral infections can cause disease in humans, animals and even plants. However, they are usually eliminated by the immune system, conferring lifetime immunity to the host for that virus. Antibiotics have no effect on viruses, but antiviral drugs have been developed to treat life-threatening infections. Vaccines that produce lifelong immunity can prevent some viral infections.