What Is a Corrupted File? (+How You Can Prevent Them)

Zack Busch
Zack Busch  |  January 2, 2019

Most computer users have at some point tried to open a file and been greeted with a dreadful message informing them the file is “corrupt.”

Corrupt files bring productivity to a halt. They can’t be opened, edited or used at all. So before we can get back to work, we have to solve a problem — and to do that, we must first understand what that problem is.

What Is a Corrupted File?

 
corrupt file error

 

Simply defined, a corrupted file is a damaged file. Whatever the cause (there are several), data in the file was fundamentally changed to the point it can no longer be used. Sometimes, tools native to your file reader or operating system (OS) can repair the file, but if it can’t be repaired, your backup software should have created a copy of an earlier version you can restore.

What Causes File Corruption?

File corruption happens for a variety of reasons. An application could glitch while attempting to open a file. Data could get damaged while copying a file to a flash drive. An abrupt power loss could disrupt a save action. Compressing or zipping a folder could inadvertently damage the folder. These are all fairly normal functions that could lead to data damage if some form of disruption occurs.

Data damage doesn’t just come from computer functions gone wrong, though. Sometimes, an error message informing you of file corruption can reveal issues with your physical device. The most common of these is a bad physical sector error, which indicates the hard drive has been physically damaged. In that instance, it may be worth considering a new hard drive and utilizing hard drive cloning software to clone your current drive.

Of course, there is the off chance viruses or other forms of malware caused the files to become corrupt. In situations like these, the priority should be to address the virus before attempting to repair or restore the file. Containment is the key here.

How Can Corrupted Files Be Prevented?

Preventing file corruption starts with proper device care. Don’t allow your devices to get too hot or too cold, as either could damage their physical hardware. If you use a hard disk drive (HDD) instead of a solid state drive (SSD), avoid too much shaking, which can cause damage. And use a surge-protected outlet or power strip to protect your device from electrical surges.

Also, if part of your daily routine involves a lot of downloading or file transfers, consider installing antivirus software and some form of anti-malware to protect your data. This might seem fairly common sense, but it’s especially important when considering the integrity of your files and data.

After device care, there’s care you can take in your day-to-day use. To start, back up your files regularly. Regular file backups are a great way to ensure your data is up to date and in step with your current projects. Check out our discussion on incremental and differential backups, where we elaborate on some different ways to keep your backups current.

Remember: When opening, saving, closing, copying or transferring files, it’s important to be patient. Rushing the action, or trying to do it multiple times at once, increases your chances of damaging file data. (This nugget in particular comes from personal experience. I rushed a close action on a media file and irreparably destroyed three hours of work in 30 seconds.)

How Can We Fix Corrupted Files?

Though broken, corrupted files can thankfully sometimes be fixed. You’ll want to proceed in this order:

  1. Back up your data. This should have happened before a file ever becomes corrupted. It’ll save you lots of time and heartache.
  2. Use the file reader’s native repair tool (if available). Some file readers — word processors, spreadsheet editors, etc. — come with a built-in repair tool. This is a great starting point for resolving what could just be a simple data repair issue.
  3. Use your OS’ native file repair tool. Most operating systems come with some sort of repair utility built into them that may be able to correct whatever data issues are affecting your file(s).
  4. Explore file recovery software options. There’s a large existing marketplace of file recovery software that can help restore your corrupted files back to functional status. These recovery tools vary by file and device type, so be sure to find a software solution that suits your needs.
  5. Restore the file from backup. This is a last resort. If none of the repair or recovery options worked, then the file in its current state should be deleted and a new, functional version should be restored from backup.

What Does This Mean For You?

File corruption can’t always be prevented, but there are several steps you can take to help avoid becoming a victim. Back up your files regularly. Take proper care of your devices. Don’t rush any processes that affect file data. And, make sure your devices are protected from malware. These steps can help ensure the next time you access your data won’t be your last.

Ready to take the next step to protect you or your business? Learn about the best free backup software in 2019.

Zack Busch
Author

Zack Busch

Zack is a Research Specialist who made the jump to the research realm after three years in IT support services. He studied mathematics, physics, and education at Truman State University. Zack enjoys video gaming, D&D, movies, TCGs, and spending time with his partner, dog, and two cats.