Viral Load: What Is It?

Viral load is a term that is very important in biochemistry and infectology to evaluate the development of viral diseases. This allows pathologies such as HIV or the current SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus to be better controlled. Then learn more about this very interesting topic. 

Viral load: what is it?

Viral load is the amount of viruses in the blood or other body fluids. It can be analyzed using biochemical methods. This information is very important for infectologists in order to facilitate the control of a viral disease.

The viral load tells the  doctor whether his therapy is working or not for a patient with a viral disease. That is why this technology is now used worldwide.

In the case of HIV, determining the amount of virus in the body is very informative and important, and doctors use this information in hepatitis C as well. In addition, the measurement of the viral load in current diseases such as the current coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 is necessary in  order to be able to assess the behavior of this virus, the course of the disease and the risk of infection.

In addition, immunocompromised patients are often candidates for an analysis of the number of viruses in their body because they are particularly at risk. By determining the viral load, incipient infections that could endanger the patient’s health can be detected early. 

The viral load in the course of an illness

The internal distribution in the body is very similar for all viral infections. Different cells can be attacked at the beginning, but the mechanism usually repeats itself. 

As soon as the virus enters the human body, it docks onto a host cell and lets it produce the building blocks it needs to make copies of itself. The host cell then dies and numerous viruses are released that go in search of new host cells. 

At some point in the disease, equilibrium is reached and after that the battle is decided for one or the other. If the immune system successfully fights the virus, the body can recover, with possible consequential damage. However, if the virus is more successful, it could be fatal for the patient.

The viral load provides information about the copies available at a specific point in time. If the number is very high, it means that the infection is very active and the virus particles are multiplying.

Normally, the patient is in the most contagious phase with a high number of viruses. Since there are many virus particles, the risk of spreading is higher. There is also a relationship between the symptoms and the number of copies in the blood. 

Examine viral load in the laboratory
The number of viruses in body fluids can be determined in the laboratory.

PCR to determine the viral load

PCR is the most widely used technique to determine the number of virus particles in the blood. It is the English abbreviation for a polymerase chain reaction. This can be used to determine whether a certain gene product (DNA or RNA) is present or not and it can be amplified. The larger volume allows the genetic information to be measured.

This method has been used since 1986  and is very popular. Almost all countries have the necessary infrastructure to carry out various PCR methods at an acceptable speed.

The polymerase chain reaction is not only used to determine the viral load,  it also enables completely different examinations, for example for forensic medicine. The possibility of obtaining large copies of DNA from a small fragment also makes this method interesting for other areas of medicine that go far beyond microbiology.

Why is it important to know the number of virus particles in body fluids?

Why is it important to know the viral load?
The determination of the number of virus particles in the blood is not exact. But the approximate value provides important information for the appropriate diagnosis and treatment.

In the current corona pandemic, viral load analysis is very important, as is the case with HIV. Scientific studies show  that the highest number of virus particles in the body occurs between the 5th and 6th day after infection. This is very important to know, especially for health workers, because at this point it is very likely that the patient will be in the emergency room or already in the hospital.

It is also known that children also have a very high number of virus particles, even if they usually only suffer from mild symptoms. Therefore, they are seen as carriers that can quickly spread the new SARS-CoV-2 virus.

In the case of HIV, after analyzing the number of virus particles in the blood, the doctor can determine  which antiviral drugs to prescribe the patient, what dose is necessary and for how long. On this basis, the doctor also assesses whether or not previous treatment was successful. The goal is to reduce the viral load until values ​​are reached that can be considered safe from a protocol perspective.

A very beneficial method

We can briefly summarize that viral load analysis is a very helpful technique. It hasn’t been around for very long, but it has proven its effectiveness and various benefits. With this technology, infectious diseases such as HIV or Covid-19 can be controlled more easily, so it is important that there are many options for this analysis worldwide. 

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