It’s more than likely that your device will be infected with malware (that is, malicious software) at some point, no matter how careful you are.
Naturally, there are ways to deal with malware and protect yourself, but what is 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’re using is any 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 trouble of having to deal with a virus. Still, viruses can—and do—slip under the radar. Some software won’t be able to detect malware hidden beneath multiple layers of ZIP files, for instance, especially if not updated regularly.
Let’s imagine a scenario in which your antivirus did not prevent a download because it found no issues with it, but once you unpacked what seemed like a legitimate ZIP file, your computer started acting up; displaying pop-ups, pushing strange notifications, showing error messages, slowing down, heating up—or otherwise showing signs that it has a virus. The first thing you would do in these circumstances is launch and update your antivirus program, and then let it scan your computer thoroughly. Upon completion, the software would most likely present you with the option to “clean” the virus.
There is no harm in letting the antivirus software clean the infected files. In some rare cases, the antivirus product will successfully clean an infected file of viruses. This is obviously useful if you need 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 Means to Quarantine a Virus?
Your antivirus product may also offer to quarantine an infected file, or do so on its own. But what exactly does it mean to quarantine a virus, and when should you do that? 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. It’s the same with computer viruses. In other words, to quarantine a virus means to isolate a malicious file in a specific, safe area of your device so that the infection does not spread to other files on it.
When antivirus software quarantines a file, that file cannot be accessed by other programs. So while the virus may not spread across your device, quarantining the infected file in and of itself will not clean it of viruses. It is, however, possible to quarantine and then clean the file. This option is particularly useful when an important file is infected—for example, a work document or a system file your device needs in order to run properly.
Also, there’s always a possibility your antivirus product mistakenly identified a perfectly legitimate program as a virus, so quarantining as opposed to deleting it entirely is sometimes the right call.
Now, you may be wondering if it is possible to indefinitely keep a file in quarantine. Technically yes, but it’s always better to delete a suspicious file than keep it on your device.
How to Remove and Delete a Computer Virus
Deletion is the last option, but probably the safest one. To be clear, deleting a virus is not as simple as deleting a file you suspect contains malware. Malware is tricky, and may spread to different parts of your operating system, leaving traces everywhere. If you just delete the suspicious file, the malware will probably keep reinstalling itself anyway and continue causing damage to your device.
This is not to say that computer viruses cannot be deleted manually—they can, but this is a very complex process that would require a lot of time and effort. And unless you’re an IT professional or an exceptionally competent computer hobbyist at the very least, you would probably not be able to do it properly anyway. This, of course, is where antivirus products come in.
After discovering malware, your antivirus will automatically try to remove it, or at least push a notification letting you know you’ve been infected. As outlined above, you can scan your device and then quarantine suspicious files before taking 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 failed to 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 tremendous damage to your system. In others, the infection would result in losing access to important documents. But in most cases, the antivirus software would do what it is designed to do: remove the virus and protect you from cybercrime.
If the virus is exceptionally stubborn and your antivirus software is struggling to delete it, boot your computer in safe mode and proceed from there. If this fails, you can run System Restore (a Windows feature that allows you to revert your PC to a previous point in time), or perform a complete reset of Windows.
Pretty much the same applies to mobile devices, Android phones in particular. Sometimes, the only thing you can do is perform a hard factory reset and hope the malware did not cause 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 method.
Responding to a Malware Attack
Circling back to the initial question, is it better to clean, quarantine, or delete a virus? There is no simple answer. It depends on the situation and type of malware you’re dealing with. In any case, in order to protect your device and your data, you should explore all three options and, if nothing works, ask for professional help.
All this underscores just how important it is to have reliable antivirus software installed on all of your devices. Fortunately, you don’t need to spend a ton of money to protect yourself. In fact, there are plenty of free options to choose from.