It is more than likely that your device will be infected with malware (i.e. malicious software) at some point, no matter how careful you are.
Sure, there are ways to deal with malware and protect yourself, but what’s the best course of action when your antivirus software detects a malicious file? Is it better to clean, quarantine or delete a virus?
Is it possible to clean a virus?
If the antivirus product you use is good, it has real-time protection, a feature that prevents malware from being installed on a device.
For example, thanks to real-time protection, a good antivirus will prevent the download of a potentially malicious file and thus save you the hassle of dealing with a virus. Still, viruses can — and they do — slip under the radar. For example, some software cannot detect malware hidden under multiple layers of ZIP files, especially if it is not regularly updated.
Let’s imagine a scenario where your antivirus program didn’t prevent a download because it found no problems with it, but once you extracted what appeared to be a legitimate ZIP file, your computer started working; display pop-ups, push strange notifications, display error messages, slow down, warm up – or otherwise show signs that it has a virus. The first thing you would do in these circumstances is to start and update your antivirus program, then have your computer thoroughly scanned. Upon completion, the software will most likely give you the option to “clean” the virus.
It doesn’t hurt to let the antivirus software clean the infected files. In some rare cases, the antivirus product will clean an infected file of viruses. This is of course useful if you want to keep the infected file, but if the file in question is a Trojan virus or a worm, there is no point in cleaning it because it is malicious in its entirety.
What does it mean to quarantine a virus?
Your antivirus product may also offer to quarantine an infected file, or do it on its own. But what exactly does it mean to quarantine a virus and when should you do it? More importantly, how does quarantining a virus help protect your device?
Let’s put it this way: When people are infected with COVID-19, they are told to quarantine and self-isolate, so as not to spread the infection to other people. The same goes for computer viruses. In other words, quarantining a virus means isolating a malicious file in a specific, safe area of your device so that the infection doesn’t spread to other files on it.
When antivirus software quarantines a file, that file is inaccessible to other programs. So while the virus may not spread on your device, quarantining the infected file by itself will not clean it of viruses. However, it is possible to quarantine the file and then clean it. This option is especially useful when an important file is infected, such as a working document or a system file that your device needs to work properly.
There’s also always a possibility that your antivirus product has mistakenly identified a perfectly legitimate program as a virus, so quarantining it instead of completely removing it is sometimes the right decision.
Now you may be wondering if it is possible to quarantine a file indefinitely. Technically yes, but it’s always better to delete a suspicious file than keep it on your device.
Remove and remove a computer virus
Uninstalling is the last option, but probably the safest. To be clear, removing a virus isn’t as simple as deleting a file you suspect contains malware. Malware is tricky and can spread to different parts of your operating system and leave traces everywhere. If you simply delete the suspicious file, the malware will likely continue to reinstall itself and cause damage to your device.
This is not to say that computer viruses cannot be removed manually – they can, but this is a very complex process that would require a lot of time and effort. And unless you’re at least an IT professional or an extremely skilled computer hobbyist, you probably couldn’t do it right anyway. This, of course, is where antivirus products come in.
After you discover malware, your antivirus will try to remove it automatically, or at the very least send you a notification to let you know you’ve been infected. As described above, you can scan your device and then quarantine suspicious files before taking any further action. But at the end, you will most likely have to delete the problematic files.
As an example, let’s say you downloaded what you thought was a legitimate file from a file-sharing site and your antivirus didn’t recognize it as malware; but when you ran it, it deployed a Trojan horse. In this scenario, you would run a scan with your antivirus, which would then quarantine and remove the malware.
In some situations, the Trojan horse would cause massive damage to your system. In other cases, the infection would lead to loss of access to important documents. But in most cases, the antivirus software would do what it was designed to do: remove the virus and protect you from cybercrime.
If the virus is extremely persistent and your antivirus software struggles to remove it, boot your computer in safe mode and continue. If that doesn’t work, you can perform System Restore (a Windows feature that allows you to restore your PC to an earlier point in time), or perform a full Windows reset.
Pretty much the same is true for mobile devices, especially Android phones. Sometimes all you can do is do a hard factory reset and hope the malware didn’t do any irreparable damage. Keep in mind that you will lose all data if you do this, if it is not backed up somewhere, so this is a last resort.
Responding to a malware attack
To return to the original question: is it better to clean, quarantine or delete a virus? There is no simple answer. It depends on the situation and the type of malware you are dealing with. In any case, to protect your device and your data, you should explore all three options and, if nothing works, get professional help.
All of this underlines the importance of having reliable antivirus software installed on all your devices. Fortunately, you don’t have to spend a lot of money to protect yourself. In fact, there are plenty of free options to choose from.