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What are Antivirals?

By Amanda Barnhart
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Antivirals are very powerful drugs that kill viruses and prevent them from growing and spreading. They are often used against Epstein-Barr, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), cytomegalovirus, and herpes. Antivirals are also used to combat influenza, including H1N1 or swine flu.

It is more difficult to develop drugs to combat viral infections because viruses live inside the cells in the body. Many times, the immune system cannot detect and fight these infections. Serious viral infections, such as HIV and severe cases of influenza, are often fatal. Antivirals can help cure patients with some viruses and help others with fatal illnesses, such as HIV, live a longer and better quality life.

Antivirals can be administered in several different ways. Most antivirals are administered orally in pill, tablet, or liquid form, or as an inhaled medication. Hospitalized patients often receive antiviral drugs intravenously through an IV line, which enables the medication to enter the bloodstream more quickly.

These medications are most effective when they are administered shortly after a patient gets sick or is diagnosed with a viral infection. Though antivirals do not cure most viruses, they can speed up the recovery process and make the symptoms less severe. Sometimes antiviral drugs are given to people who are not sick if they have been or will be exposed to a person with a highly contagious viral infection, such as influenza. About 70 to 90 percent of people who take antivirals to prevent influenza do not get sick.

The most common side effects of antiviral drugs are gastrointestinal problems, sinus problems, and headache. Most antiviral medications are safe for use in children and pregnant women. Children, pregnant women, and elderly people can benefit greatly from antiviral drugs since they have a higher risk of developing severe symptoms and complications as the result of an infection.

Some viruses are resistant to antiviral drugs, which makes further research and drug development necessary to create and discover new medications that can combat them effectively. Many countries stockpile antivirals so that they have enough on hand to treat the people most in need and those who are most at risk in the event of a pandemic.

Antiviral drugs administered for acute health conditions, such as influenza, are typically taken for five to seven days to improve symptoms and shorten the course of the illness. Patients with chronic conditions that do not have a cure may be on antivirals for months, years, or even permanently to help them reduce symptoms and improve their quality of life. Individuals with chronic conditions, such as HIV and herpes, may need their antiviral medications and dosages adjusted regularly to get the maximum benefit, since viruses can adapt and become resistant to medications quickly.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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