Computer Worms and Viruses: What's the Difference?

We have all been infected with a virus at one time our lives, whether it was a common cold or something more severe such as the flu. In recent times, more of us are being plagued by another type of infection - the computer virus.

Just as a biological virus injects its own genetical makeup into a cell and interferes with the normal functions of the human body, a computer virus is written to interfere with the normal functions of an infected machine. It has the ability to damage various programs, overwrite and delete files, reformat hard drives and perform other harmful operations.

Common Characteristics

In order to be classified a computer virus, a program must meet two qualifications. First, it must be able to execute itself by inserting its malicious code in the execution path of another application. Secondly, it must be able to self replicate by replacing existing files with copies of files containing the viral code. Similar to how a biological virus needs to find a host cell, a computer virus must find an infected host file to propagate itself and further spread the infection.

Viruses have become very common in the world of computing, infecting millions of machines since their inception. However, the virus is not alone, as it has another destructive partner: the computer worm. A worm is very similar to a virus, yet quite distinctive as well. Unlike a virus, the computer worm does not require a host file in order to propagate itself. It is able to enter a computer through system vulnerabilities and uses those flaws to propagate.

The typical computer virus must be activated by way of user intervention. This may include double-clicking on a website link or opening the attachment of an email message. A worm bypasses user intervention by releasing a document containing the infected macro and distributing itself from computer to computer. A computer virus is generally the most harmful of the two, although worms have been known to cripple entire networks due to multiple infections.

Protecting against Viruses and Worms

While viruses and worms have become common, there are a few ways to avoid these nasty infections. You can begin by purchasing a reliable anti-virus program. This type of software features a scanner equipped with the technology required to detect and eradicate viruses, worms and other members of the malware family. Since new virus and worm programs are often written on a daily basis, these security solutions function best when regularly updated by the vendor's database. It is also recommended that you purchase an anti-virus program with real-time scanning capability to monitor your incoming emails. This will enable you to scan an attachment to make sure it's safe before opening.

Another solid option is a firewall. These components often come as features of anti-virus software or as stand-alone applications. A firewall application will keep unauthorized users from accessing your system and secretly installing malicious content. By implementing these two security solutions, you can stay one step ahead of the busy coders scripting viruses and worms.

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You can protect your computer from viruses without expensive software. Instead, follow these simple tips:

Stay up-to-date on all system updates.

Don't download any email attachments you weren't expecting.

Avoid freeware and peer-to-peer sharing sites.

Use alternative web browsers and email software.