How Does Antivirus Software Work to Remove Digital Threats?

how does antivirus software work

Due to the increased number of digital threats in recent years, installing antivirus software has become an essential step for every desktop and mobile user.

But, how does antivirus software work exactly? Does it help prevent or clean the malicious software off your machine?

For answers to these and other questions, keep on reading below!

Computer Viruses vs Malware

Contrary to popular belief, the terms ‘malware’ and ‘computer virus’ are not interchangeable. Technically, while ‘malware’ is an umbrella term covering every type of malicious software out there, a ‘virus’ is a specific type of self-replicating malware.

The intent of these malicious packages takes several forms: deny user access, modify or destroy data, steal funds or information, hijack the device resources, spread other malware, spy on the user, and more.

Moreover, the term ‘anti-virus software’ is a misnomer to an extent since these programmes are developed to protect you against all types of malware, including but not limited to:

Type of malwareWhat is it?How does it spread?
VirusesSelf-replicating malware that inserts itself into other files and executes once they are launched.Via removable devices, sketchy internet downloads, and email attachments
RansomwareNewer type of malware that hijacks a user’s device or file access and requests payment to release it.Via phishing e-mails and drive-by downloading sites
Fileless MalwareChanges native OS files without installing anything, thus making it stealthier and more dangerous Via infected e-mails initially and piggybacks on valid OS scripts after activation
WormsSubset of computer viruses that propagate without user action and attack software exploitsVia P2P sites, infected emails, removable media, etc.
Trojan horsesMalicious programme that appears as a legitimate one that must be executed by the userVia third-party software, infected emails, or as a downloadable site link
AdwareThe least malicious type of malware that pushes pop-up ads after collecting your personal informationVia browser extensions, pop-ups on less reputable sites, or software bundles
SpywareRecords the user’s device interactions and collects confidential data such as account credentials, reports, financial statements, etc.Via sketchy software downloads or other software vulnerabilities
BotsComplete automated tasks spreading to other devices to create a botnet network used for large-scale attacksVia typical spyware infection methods such as infected emails or programmes

What Is Antivirus Software and How Does It Work?

Antivirus (or anti-malware) software is a computer programme specially designed to prevent, detect, and eliminate other malicious software.

Due to the large variety of malware lurking in the digital wild, these antivirus solutions rely on multiple virus detection methods, such as:

  • Signature-based scanning—the traditional virus detection software utilises a large database of existing malware to identify new-found threats;
  • Heuristic similarity analysis—instead of looking for a complete match (like the previous method) the heuristic process searches for and compares parts of the malware code to related viruses;
  • Secure sandbox analysis—if and when the AV software defines an antivirus, it moves it to a secure digital testing ground to activate and check it safely;
  • Real-time monitoring—blocks unexpected and irregular activities, especially via the user’s network, after which it hunts for the malware.

In addition to these behind-the-scenes algorithms, typical antivirus software also employs other security features for increased protection, such as:

  • Manual, scheduled, and automatic malware scanner—every antivirus allows you to run a quick, specific, or full scan either on a regular or one-time basis;
  • Additional phishing protection—recognise phishing attempts in emails, on websites, and in messaging apps;
  • Multiple device protection—depending on your subscription plan, you may be allowed to install the antivirus software on more than one device;
  • Secure firewall—protects your data by filtering the two-way traffic between your home network and the internet;
  • VPN service—provides a virtual private network that hides your identity and online activity, and grants you access to any location on the web;
  • System performance optimisation—a set of additional tools to update, clean, and speed up your device;
  • Parental controls—some premium AV offerings also include advanced parental controls to set up restricted internet access for your children;
  • Password manager—the more expensive anti-malware solutions also include a password manager that generates and safeguards all of your digital passwords.

Note: To ensure top-notch protection of your data and privacy, look into premium antivirus software that includes all of the above, such as Kaspersky, McAfee, or similar products.

Antivirus vs Anti-Malware

According to the antivirus software definition provided above, antivirus and anti-malware solutions are the same product nowadays, with ‘antivirus’ being the legacy term since originally it had to prevent and deal with this type of digital threats only.

Therefore, when you install modern antivirus software, you can expect it to eliminate all kinds of malware, including older computer viruses. Nevertheless, certain cyber-security companies still brand their products as ‘antivirus software’ for marketing purposes. 

On the other hand, other AV developers do make a difference between the two terms:

Protection against viruses, trojans, and wormsProtection against modern malware, such as polymorphic and zero-day threats
Compares threats to a databaseCan identify never-before-seen threats
Signature-based detectionHeuristic-based detection
Prevents infected scripts from running on deviceDetects and stops suspicious activity

Do You Need an Antivirus for Your Device?

After learning what is virus protection, you might be asking yourself if you actually need this type of specialised software to protect your devices.

The short answer is: yes, you do!

The long answer is: it depends on your chosen platform and internet usage.

For instance, some operating systems are innately more secure than others. For instance, while most types of malware are coded for Windows, hackers rarely construct Linux-based viruses since Linux is much more secure than Windows. Likewise, macOS and iOS users can rest assured they will not fall prey to viruses anytime soon since Apple regularly updates its software and patches any vulnerabilities that may allow malicious software to access the system.

On the other hand, even though Android users are fairly safe from viruses, this mobile platform is still less secure than iOS. Therefore, for an additional security layer and peace of mind, Android consumers are advised to install a basic antivirus app.

Ultimately, common sense is the best antivirus solution you can apply since unsafe practices that lead to malware infections are easily avoidable. Therefore, prior to installing any antivirus programmes, users should learn about safe internet usage.

Logging Off

Studying the various types of malware and how to deal with them is an essential skill in today’s tech world. Ultimately, users can protect themselves from these digital threats by installing good antivirus software and practising common sense at all times.


1. Do antivirus softwares actually work?

Yes, they do. While various AV softwares differ in efficiency, even the most basic solutions can successfully deal with common threats, such as viruses, worms, and trojans.

2. How do virus scanners work?

If you wonder how does antivirus software work, especially its scanning feature, note that it combs through your files and compares them to a virus signature database in search of a match before it proceeds to eliminate any potential threats.

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