Posted By Richard Holmes

Posted on5th April 2020

Ever wondered why it’s important to wash your hands after you blow your nose when you already have the virus? Or why you should isolate yourself from other members of the household when you have COVID-19?

It all comes down to what’s called ‘viral load’.

What is viral load?

Viral load describes the amount of the virus in your body. In some illnesses, a high viral load is associated with more severe symptoms.

Even though you’ve already caught a particular virus, for some illnesses if you keep exposing yourself to it you’ll end up with more of the virus in your system: a higher viral load. This in turn could increase the severity of your infection.

Whether this is also the case for COVID-19 is still being investigated.

How is viral load measured?

To measure viral load, a sample of plasma or blood will be analysed to evaluate how much of the virus is in a standard volume.

By using a standard volume, doctors can compare viral loads in different patients against one another and assess whether there’s a link to how severe their symptoms are.

Why is viral load important for coronavirus?

There are two reasons viral load is significant when it comes to COVID-19: the potential link to more severe symptoms and the speed at which the virus is spreading.

Though COVID-19 is a new disease, some early reports from China suggest that a higher viral load can lead to more severe symptoms when it comes to this strain of coronavirus. This is the same for other similar illnesses such as flu and SARS.

This is, however, still a grey area and there are conflicting reports about the link between the level of COVID-19 in your body and the severity of your symptoms. Another study in China of 94 COVID-19 patients showed no difference in their viral load at the end of their illness compared to the beginning.

Researchers are continuing to evaluate cases to see if there’s a link between high viral load and more severe coronavirus cases.

Beyond the severity of symptoms, viral load is also significant when it comes to the rate at which the disease is spreading.

When it comes to infectious diseases, the initial dose it takes to make someone ill is referred to as the ‘infectious dose’.

Looking at how quickly COVID-19 is spreading, medical experts have concluded that it’s likely that it only takes a low ‘infectious dose’ to make someone ill.

How does social distancing help limit viral load?

We encounter bacteria and viruses every day, so why do we need such stringent social distancing measures when it comes to coronavirus?

Given that indications show it only takes a small amount of the virus to become infected, going outside more than necessary increases your risk of exposure.

If you were in a crowded area where multiple people had coronavirus but weren’t yet showing symptoms, you’d be exposed to the virus more times and in higher quantities, increasing the likelihood that your immune system would become unable to fight it.

You can find out more information, including how to cope with isolation and how to effectively work from home by downloading one of our free coronavirus guides.

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