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The variety of ailments that can affect us today is a common medical concern, and consequently, so is the method of treatment for these illnesses. In the case of microbial infections, there can be further confusion about the type of medication prescribed for treatment – for example, when antibiotics should be used. An important criterion for distinguishing between medications for different infections is the cause of the infection – infections arise primarily as a result of viruses, bacteria, or fungi. These infections are respectively treated with antivirals, antibiotics, or antifungal medications. Though the prevalence of antibiotics makes them seem as if they are the only option, antiviral medications are available to treat certain viral infections, such as HIV, influenza, herpes, and hepatitis.

Important distinctions between viruses and bacteria prevent the effective use of medication meant for one of the two to treat the other. Viruses are small, nonliving infectious agents that require a living host organism to grow. In comparison, bacteria are more complex organisms that do not use hosts and instead rely on chemicals to grow. Though bacteria are more complex, certain bacteria are more similar to one another than viruses. This similarity makes it easier to target multiple types of bacteria with one drug. Viruses are more structurally simple, but due to this simplicity, have fewer available structures and processes for medications to target. Antiviral medications must be specific to the viruses they treat, making their large scale use for multiple viruses difficult.

 An illustration of a viral infection.

Image Source: Science Photo Library – SCIEPRO

Since viruses are nonliving organisms, and their survival depends primarily on the viruses’ ability to replicate, most antiviral medications must inhibit the viruses’ growth cycle to be effective. Different antiviral medications target different steps of the growth cycle – for example, most herpes and hepatitis antivirals affect the replication of viral DNA to prevent the formation of new viruses. Antiviral medications that treat influenza, on the other hand, prevent flu viruses from releasing their contents into cells or prevent the release of new viruses from infected cells. Antiviral medications that treat HIV can be even more complicated. For example, HIV antivirals target different points of the HIV growth cycle, such as inhibiting replication of the HIV genome or preventing effective preparation of essential HIV proteins.

Overall, though antiviral medications are less universal in the treatment of all viruses, they can still be beneficial in the treatment of certain infections. Antiviral medications require a prescription for usage, so it is important to consult a physician before use.

Featured Image Source: Tamiflu by Tony Hisgett

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