How to Use Antivirus Software

Once you find a piece of antivirus software that you like and install it on your computer, there are certain things that you should know how to do with it in order to help it keep your computer safe.  These include enabling real-time scanning for threats, manually scanning for threats, dealing with any viruses or other bad programs your antivirus software finds, and updating the list of malicious programs that your antivirus software can detect.  

It's important to note that most antivirus sofware solutions offer similar features, including those we suggested in our Best Antivirus Software tutorial:

We'll explain these actions, and along the way, we'll also offer a few other tips and tricks that you can use to help keep your antivirus software -- and, by extension, the rest of your computer -- running smoothly.

Real-time scanning

One of the most important things that you should know how to do with your antivirus software is enable real-time scanning.  It may be referred to in slightly different ways, depending on which brand of antivirus software you use (such as "dynamic scanning", "real-time protection", "dynamic protection", "automatic scanning", "automatic protection", and so on).  However, the general point is that, by having this feature enabled, your antivirus software will be instructed to quickly scan any new file that it encounters from your computer (and, on many newer antivirus programs, the Internet), and block it or otherwise deal with it if it's a virus or spyware.

There is usually a setting in your antivirus program's interface (or one of its menus) that will let you switch real-time scanning on or off.  Generally, it's a good idea to leave it on.

Disabling real-time scanning

Note that there may be times when you have to switch real-time scanning off.  Your computer, a program on your computer, or a website may notify you that your antivirus software's real-time scanning ability is interfering with a download or other update.  Many trusted processes and programs will be able to do this automatically and discreetly, and then turn real-time scanning back on when they're done.

In the event that you are asked to turn real-time scanning off manually, start by using some of our other Internet safety tips to determine if the program or website asking you to shut off real-time scanning is trustworthy.  If the request comes from a program on your computer, you may want to run a manual virus scan on it and its related computer files (see the "Manual Scans" section below), just so you know that a virus isn't waiting to pop out when real-time scanning is turned off.  And if you do decide to go ahead with the operation that requires you to turn real-time scanning off, remember to turn real-time scanning back on immediately after the operation is done.

Manual scans

If you think that your computer is acting strangely and real-time scanning isn't picking anything up, most antivirus software will allow you to perform a manual scan.  Usually, there will be a button on your antivirus software's interface (or an option in one of its menus) that will allow you to start a manual scan with default settings.

In addition, many antivirus programs will allow you to conduct custom scans that check only certain files or folders, only certain hard drive sectors, or even hidden files and folders on your computer that you don't usually use and that viruses don't usually target.

Many antivirus programs will even allow you to schedule custom scans to happen at certain times on certain days.  Just remember to have your computer on at the time you set the scan to run (though certain antivirus software will just run a scan the next time your computer starts)!

Removing threats

If, at the end of a manual scan, your antivirus software detects a virus or other malware program -- or your real-time scanner detects one -- it will often present you with a choice as to what you want to do about it.

You will usually have a choice of three options:

  • If the threat is relatively minor, you can usually heal the infected file by removing the virus, and perhaps repairing any code in the infected file that has sustained minor damage.

  • You must delete some stand-alone threats (such as spyware or adware), as well as some files that have been infected by stronger viruses and are damaged beyond repair.

  • There are some viruses and other threats that your antivirus software may not know how to deal with yet.  For example, it may not know how to heal or delete the virus because it doesn't recognize the type of threat it is, or it can't get into the file that the virus has infected in order to heal or delete it.  In these cases, you can sometimes quarantine the affected files to keep the damage from spreading.  From there, you can look for advanced virus removal tools on the Internet, or contact your antivirus software provider and see if they can help.

Updating your antivirus software

Along with enabling real-time scanning, one of the other really important things that you can do to get the best use out of your antivirus software is to make sure that it's updated with the latest list of threats.  The more threats that your antivirus software knows about, the more it can block and fix, and the better it gets at guessing what new files it encounters might be viruses or malware (through heuristic detection).

There is usually a button or menu option in most antivirus software interfaces that allows you to update the program or its virus list on demand.

Also, just like how you can schedule scans with most modern antivirus software, you will also often have the ability to schedule updates for an antivirus program or its virus list at certain times on certain days.  Some will even automatically update once their parent company makes a new virus list or program update available.  We highly recommend that you enable automatic or scheduled updates on your antivirus software, if you are able to do so.

Updates of paid antivirus software

If you are using antivirus software that requires a paid subscription to use, make sure to have your subscription set up so that it renews itself automatically.  Or, if this isn't possible, pay attention to notices you receive on when your paid subscription is about to expire, and be sure to take the steps necessary to renew your subscription.  If you allow your paid subscription to lapse, don't panic; this won't result in your antivirus software being deleted or turned off until you start paying again, so you'll still be protected somewhat.  However, you won't be able to receive new updates from the parent company, which could put your computer at risk against new viruses and malicious programs that your antivirus software doesn't know how to detect yet.

One last tip: switching antivirus software

If you don't like the current antivirus software that you're using, you can always switch to a different brand.  However, be sure to uninstall your current antivirus software before you install the new program (though, if you're getting it off the Internet, go ahead and download it first so that you won't risk getting a virus while you have no antivirus software protecting your computer).  There are two reasons for this.  One is that having two programs on your computer doing virtually the same job needlessly takes up memory space and processing power, which slows your computer down.  The other is that certain antivirus programs might actually interfere with each other, with one thinking that the other is a virus itself!

Also, if you're switching away from antivirus software that requires a paid subscription, be sure to cancel your subscription after you've uninstalled the software.  After all, you don't want to be paying for a program that you're not actually using!


Well, that's about everything you need to know in order to keep your computer safe with antivirus software!


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