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What are antivirals?

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.

What are viruses?

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):

  • Contaminated bodily products like blood, urine, feces (poop), vomit, ejaculate (semen) and saliva.
  • Bug bites (transfer of a virus from a bug’s saliva into a person’s blood).
  • Skin-on-skin contact, including sex.

How do antiviral medications work?

Antiviral medicines work differently depending on the drug and virus type. Antivirals can:

  • Block receptors so viruses can’t bind to and enter healthy cells.
  • Boost the immune system, helping it fight off a viral infection.
  • Lower the viral load (amount of active virus) in the body.

What do antivirals treat?

Most viruses clear up without antiviral medications. Healthcare providers prescribe antivirals to treat chronic or life-threatening viral infections, including:

  • Coronaviruses like COVID-19.
  • Ebola.
  • Flu, including H1N1 (swine flu).
  • Genital herpes.
  • Hepatitis B and hepatitis C.
  • Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).