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How Does a Virus Infect a Cell?

By Dr. Franchesca Vermillion ; Updated August 14, 2017

A virus can infect any animal, insect, plant or even bacteria, according to, a website updated on the latest viruses and diseases. Some viruses are very mild, like the common cold, but tend to spread more rapidly. Other diseases are far more serious, like HIV or ebola, a severe form of hemorrhagic fever. Viruses are not considered a living organism since they cannot replicate on their own, and are technically classified as a parasite. Viruses can lay dormant in the ground until they come into contact with a host.

Entry into the Body

Viruses can gain access to the body through many ways. Vectors, virus-carrying organisms, often transmit viruses through a bite of some sort, like mosquitoes transmitting malaria. Otherwise, viruses can be inhaled, eaten or obtained through fluid exchange, or the virus may come into contact with an open wound. A mother can also give an infection to a newborn child through the delivery process or breast milk.

Cell Anatomy

According to Harvard Medical School, a cell is made up of a double outer lipid membrane. Inside of the cell there is a large amount of cytoplasm, which helps encase the cell’s nucleus. The nucleus contains all of the information needed to replicate the cell, as well as provides the cell with energy.

Adsorption and Entry

However the virus gains access to the body, it will make its way to a nearby cell and sit on the lipid membrane of the cell. Once on the cell membrane, the virus will attempt to fit into receptors or keys that will open the cell wall. From there, Discovery Health states the virus injects its own genetic material into the cytoplasm of the cell, leaving the casing of the virus outside of the cell. Viruses contain their own DNA or RNA with codes on how to replicate themselves.


Harvard Medical School states that the virus will make its way into the nucleus of the cell and hijack the cell’s replicating and energy process, inserting its own genetic material into the assembly line so more copies of the virus are made rather than a copy of the cell. The process will repeat over and over, producing thousands of copies of the viral material, which make their way into the cytoplasm again.


Inside the cytoplasm of the cell, the viral pieces will re-assemble. This process of replication and assembly will repeat until the cell can no longer contain all the material. The viral material will push out against the lipid wall of the cell and may even use the cell wall to re-coat the virus.


Release happens when the cell bursts open. From there all the new viruses will find other nearby cells to infect and start the process all over in a new cell. There are usually millions of copies of the initial virus before symptoms are felt, according to Harvard Medical School. This replication process will continue until the body's own immune system recognizes the infection and releases its own array of soldiers to combat and remove the virus from the system.

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