Understanding Antibiotics vs Antivirals

Antibiotics vs antivirals

Antibiotics and antivirals- what’s the difference and how do they work to help a cold and flu? Read on to find out more about these common medications.

Antibiotics and antivirals are medications that can treat bacterial infections and viruses. An antibiotic will be prescribed for bacterial infections, while an antiviral is to help with a viral infection. Different varieties of antibiotics and antivirals are targeted toward different illnesses and circumstances surrounding the patient, so it is important to consult with a medical professional for the best advice and a prescription. For assistance with prescriptions, Medmate is here to help.

The Difference Between An Antibiotic And An Antiviral

Antibiotics and antivirals are two types of prescription medications, but they are not at all the same. 

Antibiotics are used to treat infections caused by bacteria, whereas antiviral medications are effective against viruses. While it might seem that these two things are interchangeable, they are not. 

Antibiotics are not effective against viruses, and antivirals are not effective against bacterial infections, although, in circumstances where a virus causes a secondary bacterial infection, they may both be used to treat the two different illnesses.

What is an antibiotic?

Antibiotics are used for the treatment of bacterial infections, such as acne, bronchitis, ear infections and urinary tract infections (UTIs). Bacteria are prokaryotes, which are single-celled organisms that can occur as gram-positive or gram-negative forms. Bacteria can communicate between cells using chemical signalling, which can lead to the phenomenon known as antibiotic resistance. Antibiotics treat the illness by either making it impossible for the bacteria to multiply or by killing the bacteria.

While antibiotics can be very effective tools for treating bacterial illnesses, their use requires oversight by a healthcare professional. This is not only to ensure that the correct type of antibiotic is being administered but also to help guard against antibiotic resistance. Once you have a prescription, a delivery service like Medmate can ensure reliable and timely delivery of your medication.

Antibiotics and antivirals

Antibiotics only kill bacteria. They are not effective against viruses like Covid.

Common Types of Antibiotics


Penicillins are beta-lactam antibiotics that are commonly used to treat conditions such as pneumonia, upper respiratory infections, and infections in the ears, skin, gums, throat, and mouth. 

There are five main groups of penicillins: 

  • Amino penicillins
  • Antipseudomonal penicillins
  • beta-lactamase inhibitors
  • natural penicillins 
  • penicillinase-resistant penicillins

Common varieties of penicillins are listed here, with brand names in brackets: 

    • Amoxicillin (Amoxil)
    • Amoxicillin and Clavulanate (Augmentin) 
    • Ampicillin (Unasyn)
    • Dicloxacillin
    • Oxacillin
    • Penicillin V Potassium


There are five generations of Cephalosporins, with newer generations promoting better coverage against gram-negative infections. Cephalosporins are bactericidal and work similarly to penicillins. They are often used to treat strep throat, ear infections, urinary tract infections (UTIs), lung infections and meningitis. They are also active against methicillin-resistant staphylococcus auras (MRSA). 

Common types include:

  • Cefaclor
  • Cefdinir
  • Cefotaxime (Claforan)
  • Ceftazidime (Avycaz, Fortaz, Tazicef)
  • Ceftriaxone
  • Cefuroxime (Zinacef)
  • Ceftaroline (Teflaro)

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Tetracyclines are broad-spectrum, anti-bacterial medications commonly used for acne, UTIs, intestinal tract infections, eye infections, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), and periodontitis (gum infections). 

Common types of tetracyclines include: 

    • Demeclocycline (Declomycin)
    • Doxycycline (Adoxa, Doryx)
    • Doxy 100, Oracea, Vibramycin, Eravacycline (Xerava)
    • Minocycline (Dynacin, Minocin Solodyn)
    • Omadacycline (Nuzyra)
    • Tetracycline (Panmycin, Sumycin).


Aminoglycosides are intravenous, bactericidal antibiotics. They are used in the treatment of several abdominal infections, UTIs, bacteremia, and endocarditis, as well as a preventative measure for possible endocarditis. 

Common types of aminoglycosides include: 

    • Gentamicin (Genoptic)
    • Tobramycin (TOBI, Tobradex, Tobrex)
    • Amikacin (Amikin).

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What is an Antiviral?

Antivirals are used for the treatment of viral infections, such as herpes, influenza, and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Viruses are groups of molecules made up of genetic material (DNA or RNA), with a protein layer and sometimes an envelope of fat. 

Unlike bacteria, which can survive and replicate outside of a host, viruses need a host to multiply. Antiviral drugs treat viruses by invading the viral clusters and either preventing them from multiplying or killing the viral cells.

Viruses Antibiotics and antivirals

Virus particles are released in bodily fluids – such as coughing and sneezing.

Common Antiviral Medications

Flu Antivirals

Influenza antivirals can work in two ways; by inhibiting the ion channel M2 protein, or inhibiting the enzyme neuraminidase. Both of these can be effective in preventing the flu from reproducing within the body.

Common types of flu antivirals are: 

    • Amantadine (Gocovri, Symandine, Symmetrel)
    • Rimantadine (Flumadine)
    • Oseltamivir (Tamiflu)
    • Zanamivir (Relenza).

Herpes Antivirals

Herpes antivirals work as competitive substrates for viral DNA polymerase, which may prevent the spread of the viral infection within the body.

Common types include: 

    • Acyclovir (Zovirax)
    • Brivudin (Zostex)
    • Cidofovir (Vistide)
    • Famciclovir (Famvir)
    • Fomivirsen (Vitravene)
    • Foscarnet (Foscavir)
    • Ganciclovir (Cytovene, Cymevene, Vitrasert)
    • Pinciclovir (Denavir)
    • Valacyclovir (Valtrex, Zelitrex)
    • Valganciclovir (Valcyte, Valcip)
    • Vidarbine (Nipent).

HIV Antivirals

HIV antivirals, or antiretrovirals, fall into five primary categories. Nucleoside reverse transcpritase inhibitors (NRTIs), non-nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors (NNRTIs), protease inhibitors, integrate inhibitors, and entry inhibitors. 

It is common practice for patients to use combination therapy of more than one of these antivirals to provide the best results. 

Common HIV antivirals are: 

    • Zidovudine (Retrovir)
    • Didanosine (Videx)
    • Zalcitabine (Hivid)
    • Stavudine (Zerit)
    • Lamivudine (Zeffix, Epivir)
    • Abacavir (Ziagen)
    • Emtrictabine (Emtriva)
    • Entacavir (Baraclude)
    • Emtrictabine and tenofovir (Truvada)
    • Tenofovir (Viread)
    • Adefovir (Preveon, Hepsera)
    • Efaxirenz (Sustiva, Stocrin)
    • Nevirapine (Viramune)
    • Delavirdine (Rescriptor)
    • Etravirine (Intelence)
    • Rilpivirine (Edurant)
    • Doravirine (Pifeltro).

Hepatitis Antivirals

Hepatitis antivirals are effective in slowing the virus and thereby slowing the virus’s ability to damage the liver. 

Common antivirals for hepatitis are: 

    • Interferons, which come in alpha, beta, and gamma types
    • Ribavirin (Copegus, Rebetol, Virazole)
    • Adefovir (Hepsera)
    • Emtricitabine (Emtriva)
    • Entecavir (Baraclude)
    • Lamivudine (Epivir, Zeflix)
    • Telbivudine (Tyzeka, Sebvio)
    • Tenofovir (Viread, Vemlidy, Genvoya, Odefsey, Descovy, Symutza)
    • Boceprevir (Victrelis)
    • Telaprevir (Incivek, Incivo).

Key Takeaways

Antibiotics and antivirals are not the same, but they can be effective against bacterial infections and viruses with oversight from a medical professional. As with all prescription medications, whether they be antibiotics, antivirals, or antidepressants, learning about your medication and seeking good advice is key to successful treatment. Access to your medication is also a vital part of the chain, and Medmate can help with that.

  • Dr Ganesh Naidoo
  • About the Author

    Dr Ganesh Naidoo BSc(biomed), MBBS, FRACGP is an Australian General Practitioner. He has significant clinical experience in multiple regions of Australia and has a passion for health transformation to improve clinical outcomes for all patients.

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