Antiviral medications help the body fight off harmful viruses. The drugs can ease symptoms and shorten the length of a viral infection. Antivirals also lower the risk of getting or spreading viruses that cause herpes and HIV. One approved antiviral treats the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
Antivirals are medications that help your body fight off certain viruses that can cause disease. Antiviral drugs are also preventive. They can protect you from getting viral infections or spreading a virus to others.
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Viruses are tiny (microscopic) infectious agents that grow and multiply only inside living cells of an organism. Viruses have receptors that allow them to attach to healthy (host) cells in your body. Once a virus attaches to and enters a host cell, it can replicate (make copies of itself). The host cell dies, and the virus infects other healthy cells.
Sometimes, viruses remain in a host cell without replicating or damaging it. The virus is still there (which means you could be contagious), but you don’t have symptoms. This latent, or inactive, virus can become active at any time and cause symptoms or be passed on to others. The way viruses spread depends on the type of virus.
Viruses can spread through: modes of viral spread (differs by type of virus):
Antiviral medicines work differently depending on the drug and virus type. Antivirals can:
Most viruses clear up without antiviral medications. Healthcare providers prescribe antivirals to treat chronic or life-threatening viral infections, including:
Antiviral drugs can ease symptoms and shorten how long you are sick with viral infections like the flu and Ebola. They can rid your body of these viruses.
Viral infections like HIV, hepatitis and herpes are chronic. Antivirals can’t get rid of the virus, which stays in your body. However, antiviral medicines can make the virus latent (inactive) so that you have few, if any, symptoms. Symptoms that develop while you take antivirals may be less severe or go away faster.
Yes, antiviral drugs can keep you from getting certain viral infections after a suspected or known exposure. For instance, taking specific antivirals:
Most antivirals are oral drugs that you swallow. But you may also receive antiviral medications as:
· Inhaled powder.
· Injection (shot) into a muscle.
· IV into a vein.
· Topical (skin) ointments or creams.
Treatment length varies depending on the antiviral drug and viral infection. You may need one dose of an IV drug or a week of oral medicine.
People who have chronic ailments like HIV may take daily antivirals for life. This drug regimen keeps the virus from becoming active. It can prevent the virus from infecting others.
Antibiotics help the immune system fight off bacterial infections. Bacteria typically reproduce outside of cells, making it easier for medicines to target them. An antibiotic can usually treat many different types of bacterial infections. But the drugs do not affect viruses.
Each antiviral only works against a specific virus. Because viruses inside cells are harder to target, antiviral drugs are more challenging to develop. There are more viruses than antiviral drugs to treat them.
Side effects from antivirals vary depending on the drug type and strength (dosage). You may experience:
Skipping doses or starting and stopping an antiviral medicine can allow a virus to change/adapt so that the antiviral is no longer effective. This is antiviral resistance. People who take antivirals for extended periods are more prone to antiviral resistance.
Antivirals are relatively safe medicines. Children as young as two weeks, as well as pregnant and breastfeeding individuals, can take certain antiviral medications. Guidelines for who shouldn’t take antivirals vary depending on the drug. Your healthcare provider can determine whether an antiviral medicine is safe for you.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Antiviral medications can treat certain viruses, putting an end to symptoms. For people with chronic viral infections, antiviral drugs can stop the virus from multiplying and causing problems. The medicine also lowers your chances of giving the virus to others. Your healthcare provider may prescribe an antiviral as a preventive measure if you have a known viral exposure. Taking antiviral medicines for a long time, or failing to take them as prescribed, can lead to antiviral resistance.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 05/11/2021.
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