Viruses of any kind are scary. The potential for damage they can do is serious. Unfortunately, many people don’t really understand computer viruses and that actually makes the viruses more dangerous. By gaining a better understanding of viruses, you can prepare better defences, and that’s what this article is all about.

We’ll take a look at some of the more common misunderstandings and myths about computer viruses and try to help separate fact from fiction.

Myth 1: Viruses can’t be cured

Computer viruses are just programs like any other program, with the only difference being that they are intended to have some malicious or at least disruptive purpose. Some viruses are also programmed to be intelligently evasive. This can make detecting and removing them more difficult, nevertheless, all viruses can be defeated.

Whether it is worth curing a computer virus is another matter entirely. As the ancient saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and so it will usually be in your best interests to take the appropriate precautions to avoid suffering the effect of a virus. This requires a multilayered strategy, which is a topic for a future article, as the scope of it is far too large to deal with here.

Myth 2: Antivirus software is all you need to keep you safe

Antivirus is certainly a big help, but it is not a complete solution to the security problem because all antivirus software applications in existence today are reactive and retrospective. They are not normally very effective against newly developed viruses, or any virus which has managed to remain undetected.

There is, for example, a type of virus that can remain dormant (and thus undetected) until a triggering event occurs. This is known as a sleeper virus, and can potentially be devastating on a very large scale.

Antivirus software mainly detects viruses that are already known, and the huge number of viruses that are constantly in development means that some day the sheer weight of antivirus software databases will affect the performance of the computer so much that it may as well be a virus itself.

Myth 3: Viruses only target the Microsoft Windows operating systems

This is a myth, but it’s not sufficient to simply say it’s untrue. Although it is possible for a virus to target other operating systems, the majority of other major operating systems widely in use are significantly more difficult to infect.

There are viruses that can affect Mac OSX, and there are even viruses that have been created to target Linux and Unix. These viruses exist, but in general, they are limited in their power to create problems on the target machines.

Linux and similar operating systems have an architecture that is unfriendly to the way viruses operate. For example, it is difficult to accidentally activate a virus in Linux. If by some chance you did manage to do it, there are many layers of security standing between the virus and what it will attempt to do.

Linux also allows greater separation of file data from the operating system. User files are stored in a home directory which can be stored in a separate partition or even on a completely  separate drive. This isolation of data from the operating system means that the entire operating system can be reinstalled without any loss of file data occurring.

It was once thought that Mac OSX, being based on Unix, would have a similarly high level of inherent immunity against viruses, however Mac OSX (in common with Android) contains significant portions of proprietary code which is not open source like the rest of the operating system. This makes it easier to execute exploits against the operating system, however still not as easy as it is with Microsoft Windows which is made from entirely closed source proprietary code.

The bottom line is that merely using a different operating system won’t completely spare you from the possibility of your system getting infected with a virus, but it will make it more difficult for the virus to cause serious harm.

The exception is Android. This operating system is vulnerable for the same reasons that Mac OSX is, but it’s even worse because Android does not provide much control for users to undertake diagnostic and remedial action.

Regardless of your operating system, if you take the specific steps that will allow the virus to execute its instructions, your system will get infected.

Myth 4: Reinstalling fixes everything

While reinstalling is sometimes effective, it quite often isn’t. The only ways to be totally certain that the virus won’t still be a problem is to either completely replace the machine with a new one or to have the machine sanitized by an expert in computer virus removal.

Coping and surviving

Computer viruses are simply a fact of modern life, and there’s no reason to panic about them. Neither should you ignore the threat they pose. Instead, the best thing to do is follow appropriate security guidelines and always seek expert assistance if you believe the security of your system has been breached in any way.

Back up your data, use strong passwords, employ proper access control, use security software, connect to networks only when necessary, and consider also using encryption.

If you follow these procedures faithfully, the chance of being affected by a virus will be greatly reduced, and the potential impact of a virus that does slip through your defences will be reduced as well.