The best defense against computer malware consists of a combination of protective software and proactive common sense. Anti-malware applications stand watch against viruses while you use enlightened awareness to avoid introducing these threats onto your system. If one of them manages to infect your computer, it can destroy your operating system, corrupt or hide your files and stir up panic with false warnings, but malware's action stops short of actual hardware damage.

Defining Malware

Malware typically enters your system after you launch what looks like a useful or entertaining file or application attached to an unexpected email message or linked from a website. Viruses attach themselves to other files and perform unwanted tasks, ranging from damaging your OS to interfering with your ability to download software that can remove them. Trojans enable remote hackers to take control of your computer and access your private information, or turn it into part of a network used in attacks on commercial or government data and systems. In either case, your system becomes at least partially inoperable and your privacy stands at risk.

Software Disables Software

Whether you accidentally install a bogus Windows diagnostic package that alerts you to drastic but nonexistent damage to your files and hard drive or suddenly start seeing ominous warnings that you've violated copyright law and must pay a "fine" to regain access to your computer, you've come under the influence of malware. All malware consists of software, which can attack only documents or other software. Because it can render your system inoperable, however, malware can make your system appear to suffer from hardware damage. Depending on the type of malware infestation, you may be able to remove it and continue working, or you may be forced to reformat your hard drive and reinstall your OS and applications.

MBR or BIOS Infections

Among the least common types of malware, master boot record viruses infect the storage areas of your hard drive that contain some of its most-basic instructions on how to start up. Stored on your motherboard itself, the BIOS defines your computer's hardware configuration and how it functions. The MBR consists of the initial storage sector on a bootable drive or disk and can hold data that bridge the gap between BIOS and operating system. Most malware can't infect the MBR, but those that do run at a very low, basic level of computer operations. Some malware actually can attack the BIOS itself, damaging the information stored in it. These types of infestations can make your system look fundamentally disabled until you remove them, but they don't cause actual hardware damage.

Other Considerations

If you use an older computer with an equivalently aging hard drive, a malware infestation can subject your system to unexpected wear. Malware can overload your computer's memory with instructions that force it to use disk space as a substitute for free RAM, sending your hard drive into a frenzy of activity. It's unlikely but not impossible that a protracted bout of such disk thrashing could accelerate disk aging enough to wear out an already vulnerable mechanism. In that case, you can consider the virus a trigger of hardware damage but not its root cause. Any application that consumes large amounts of memory could produce the same results.