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What are Antiviral Drugs?

Niki Foster
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Antiviral drugs are a type of medication used to treat viral infections, including human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), herpes, hepatitis, and flu. They are one type of antimicrobial drugs, a class of medication that fights harmful microorganisms in the body. The other types are antibiotics for bacteria, antifungals for fungal infections, and antiparasitic drugs for parasite infections.

Like the other antimicrobials, antiviral drugs are administered to the patient to treat infection in the body, and are relatively harmless to the patient. Poisons used to kill viruses outside the body are known as viricides. Both antibiotics and antivirals are targeted to act against specific organisms. Both are also subject to drug resistance, in which the target organism develops a resistance against the drug, causing it to become less effective over time.

Antiviral drugs work a bit differently than antibiotics, since viruses and bacteria function in different ways. While most antibiotics destroy bacteria, most antivirals only inhibit the growth of the target virus. Antivirals cannot be used to destroy a virus, because viruses use the cells of the host to replicate, so destroying viral cells would amount to destroying the host's body cells, and would cause more harm than good. Because viruses use the host cells to replicate, antivirals are more complex than antibiotics, and appeared on the pharmaceutical scene relatively late. It was not until the 1980s, when scientists were able to discover the genetic sequences and life cycle of viruses in detail, that antivirals could be reliably produced.

In earlier medicine, viruses could only be prevented through vaccination, but were difficult to treat once infection had occurred. Vaccines usually work by infecting the patient with a weak strain of the target virus, allowing his or her immune system to develop antibodies against the virus that will fight it off when infection occurs. Vaccines are not only ineffective against established viral infections, but also have difficulty addressing rapidly mutating viruses such as influenza.

Unlike bacteria, viruses consist only of a genome, and lack the cellular structures of other organisms, rendering them unable to reproduce on their own. Therefore, they require a host to reproduce. Antiviral drugs target viruses at different stages of their life cycle, inhibiting them from reproducing to stop or slow the spread of infection.

Different antiviral drugs work in different ways. They may target the host cells, making them resistant to viral infection, or they may work on viruses within the host cell, interfering with their reproductive mechanisms to prevent the spread of the virus to new cells. They may also prevent the assembly of viral components into complete viral particles within the host cell or the release of the virus from the host cell.

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Niki Foster
By Niki Foster , Writer

In addition to her role as a TheHealthBoard editor, Niki enjoys educating herself about interesting and unusual topics in order to get ideas for her own articles. She is a graduate of UCLA, where she majored in Linguistics and Anthropology.

Discussion Comments

By serenesurface — On Mar 25, 2014

@ddljohn-- As far as I know, lysine is an amino acid that strengthens the immune system. Lysine is often used alone or in conjunction with antiviral drugs to help the body fight viral infections. So it's basically a supplement, not a drug. But many people say that lysine is very effective and can reduce symptoms of viral infections.

For example, lysine is often used for herpes blisters. Although the amino acid does not kill the virus, it helps the immune system push the virus back into its inactive state. So taking lysine supplements or using topical lysine products can help herpes blisters heal or may even prevent them from developing.

By ddljohn — On Mar 24, 2014

Is lysine an antiviral drug?

By SarahGen — On Mar 23, 2014

So just like antibiotics, there are different types of antivirals that work in different ways. For example, I know that some antibiotics prevent bacteria from replicating, while others destroy bacteria's cell wall, thereby killing it. I understand that antivirals cannot directly kill viruses, but I guess different antivirals intervene in different cell functions of viruses.

No wonder viral infection are much harder to beat, it's because antivirals cannot target viruses like antibiotics target bacteria.

Niki Foster

Niki Foster


In addition to her role as a TheHealthBoard editor, Niki enjoys educating herself about interesting and unusual...

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