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Do Antivirals Weaken The Immune System? An In-Depth Look

What Are Antivirals?

Antivirals are a kind of medication that can help your body fight off viral infections. Depending on the medication and virus, they can also help reduce the viral illness symptoms and shorten its duration.

Unlike antibiotics, which can often be used to treat many different bacterial infections, each antiviral medication only works on one specific virus. Because viruses exist inside your body cells, they are very difficult to target, making antiviral medications difficult and often slow to develop. They are also not really alive and mostly work by taking over the internal components of a cell. This means they can be very hard to destroy without also killing the cells they have infected. As a result of these complications, there are many viruses for which there are no effective antiviral drugs, yet at least.

Antiviral medications can also reduce your risk of getting certain viruses or lower the risk of spreading viruses you already have to other people.

Most antivirals come in the form of pills that you swallow. However, you can also get some antiviral medications such as eyedrops, inhaled powder, injections into muscle tissue, IV into the bloodstream, and topical skin ointments and creams.

What Are Viruses?

Viruses are tiny microscopic agents that are much smaller than the cells of your body or bacteria cells. Unlike bacteria, viruses can only grow and multiply inside living cells. They attach to your body cells using receptors before entering them and replicating themselves, destroying or damaging the cell before infecting other, healthy cells.

Viruses can also enter a cell and remain there for a long time without replicating themselves or damaging the cell. As a result, you can be infected with a virus without experiencing any symptoms. If you are carrying a virus in your cells in this way, you may still be contagious and in danger of infecting others. Dormant viruses being carried in your body can become active at any time, which means there can be some time between your exposure to a virus and experiencing the first sign of symptoms.1

Viruses can spread from one person to another through contaminated bodily fluids. Depending on the virus and which cells in the body it infects, this could include:

  • Blood

  • Urine

  • Feces

  • Vomit

  • Saliva

  • Semen

Contaminated bodily fluid can be transferred between people indirectly, for example, through bug bites from insects that have fed on infected blood.

How do Antiviral Medications Work?

Antiviral medications use a variety of mechanisms to help your body fight off a viral infection. Different viruses respond to different drugs and mechanism types.2

Most antiviral medications, however, do some combination of the following:

  • Bind to the receptors of a virus so that it cannot attach itself to any of the cells in your body

  • Boost the immune system by providing key nutrients that stimulate the production of immune system cells and enzymes

  • Lower the amount of active virus in your body

What do Antivirals Treat?

Most viruses will eventually clear up without antiviral medications. However, you may need antivirals to effectively treat some chronic or life-threatening viral infections, including:

  • Coronaviruses

  • Ebola

  • Flu

  • Genital herpes

  • Hepatitis B and hepatitis C

  • Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV)

Some antivirals can help your body eliminate a virus from your system, but this is not possible for all viruses. Some viral infections, such as HIV and hepatitis, will always leave some amount of inactive virus in your cells. Antivirals cannot cure you of these viruses. However, they can keep the virus inactive, preventing it from causing further damage or symptoms, or reducing symptoms when they occur.

Some antivirals can also make you less contagious as a result and help your body eliminate viruses before they can enter your cells. For example, taking the right antiviral medications can:

  • Reduce the risk of a mother passing an HIV infection to the baby during pregnancy

  • Lower the risk of getting some viral infections, such as herpes, from a sexual partner, and also lower the risk of passing a viral infection on to a partner

  • Lower this risk of an HIV infection if taken within 72 hours of an exposure

  • Lower the risk of getting sick if taken within 48 hours of a possible exposure

What are the Potential Side Effects of Antivirals?

Side effects from antiviral drugs vary depending on the type and strength of the medication you are taking.

These can include:

  • Cough

  • Dry mouth

  • Diarrhea

  • Dizziness

  • Fatigue

  • Headaches

  • Insomnia

  • Joint pain or muscle pain

  • Nausea and vomiting

  • Skin rash

Some people can have allergic reactions to some of the ingredients used in antiviral medications, resulting in other, more severe side effects and the side effects more usually associated with the antiviral medication they are taking. Antiviral medications should only be used with a prescription, according to your healthcare provider’s instructions.

Do Antivirals Weaken the Immune System?

Most antiviral drugs do not weaken your immune system, or at least not directly. Many can put your immune system under more pressure, however, making them unsuitable for people with some immune system deficiency disorders. However, taking antivirals in the wrong way can result in antiviral resistance, which leaves your body more vulnerable to viral infection.

What is Antiviral Resistance?

Taking antiviral medications incorrectly or when you don’t need them can build up your body’s resistance to antiviral drugs. This can make them less effective when you really need them. As a result, using antiviral drugs to treat minor illnesses is usually not recommended unless you have other health complications that make them more dangerous for you.

Viruses themselves can also change and adapt to survive or resist antiviral medications. They can often do this faster than bacterial infections. Because they use the existing mechanisms of your cells to replicate themselves, they replicate themselves imperfectly more often, creating mutations that might make them less susceptible to the effects of antiviral medication. 3

Taking an incorrect dosage that makes the antivirus less effective also makes this more likely. People who have to take antiviral drugs on a regular basis due to chronic viral infection can be more prone to developing antiviral resistance.

To deal with this, it is ideal to develop multiple antiviral drugs with different mechanisms for a virus wherever possible, especially in the case of treating chronic viral infections. If a virus that you are infected with becomes resistant to the antiviral drugs you are taking, you will no longer be protected from the effects and symptoms of the virus in the same way. If other antiviral drugs have been developed for the same virus, your healthcare provider can prescribe you a different antiviral that the new viral mutation is not resistant to.

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