COVID-19 continues to linger, and may for the foreseeable future, but every day we’re learning more on how to prevent and treat it.
There are COVID-19 vaccinations to help protect you against severe illness, hospitalization and death. And, if you’re diagnosed with COVID-19, there are medications available that may prevent serious disease or death.
COVID-19 antiviral medications
You may have heard about monoclonal antibody and convalescent plasma treatments. But the newest treatments are antiviral pills, a class of medication used to treat infections caused by viruses like COVID-19.
“Currently, there are two antiviral medications that have received Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to treat COVID-19, ritonavir-boosted nirmatrelvir (Paxlovid) and molnupiravir (Lagevrio),” said Jason Brown, MD, the chief medical officer for Banner Pharmacy Services in Phoenix, AZ. “Both antiviral medications have been proven to be effective in reducing a patient’s chances of being hospitalized, or dying, from COVID-19 and can be taken in the comfort of your own home.”
Antivirals aren’t new – you may have even taken one like Tamiflu for influenza. But how do these drugs work, and could you benefit?
Here’s what to know about the oral antiviral pills Paxlovid and Lagevrio.
1. How do COVID-19 antivirals work?
COVID-19 antiviral medications help your body fight off the infection by stopping the virus from making copies of itself. This helps reduce symptoms and shorten the length of illness.
Paxlovid is a combination of two antiviral pills: nirmatrelvir and ritonavir. “Nirmatrelvir blocks COVID-19 from multiplying so that the virus cannot make copies of itself,” said Denise Erickson, senior director of Banner Pharmacy Services. “Then ritonavir helps slow the breakdown of nirmatrelvir, enabling the medication to stay in your body at higher levels for longer.”
Lagevrio also stops COVID-19 from copying itself. It does so by tricking the virus into inserting the Lagevrio into its genetic material making it difficult for the virus to make copies.
2. Who can take COVID-19 oral antivirals?
Both medications are available by prescription, but they aren’t for everyone.
Here’s what to know:
- Paxlovid is the preferred oral antiviral for COVID-19 treatment. However, you may not be able to take Paxlovid if you have severe renal or liver disease and/or are taking certain medications due to drug interactions. Lagevrio should only be taken if you are unable to receive Paxlovid or a monoclonal antibody.
- You shouldn’t take Lagevrio if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding and/or 17 years old and younger as it can slow bone and cartilage growth.
- The FDA has authorized Paxlovid for people ages 12 and older who weigh at least 88 pounds and are high risk.
- Lagevrio is authorized for adults 18 and older who are high risk when alternative COVID-19 treatment options authorized by FDA (i.e., Paxlovid) are not accessible or clinically appropriate.
“Those who may benefit most from COVID-19 therapy are patients with high risk factors or health conditions that put them at risk for developing severe disease,” Dr. Brown said. “Some of these risk factors include patients who are overweight, obese, have heart conditions, diabetes, cancer, chronic liver disease, chronic lung disease, pregnancy or are over age 50.
Your health care provider will help you understand whether you’re eligible and which medication is right for you. Let your provider know what medications you’re currently taking.
[Check out the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website for further details on high-risk criteria.]
3. What are the potential side effects of taking COVID-19 antivirals?
As with any medication, you could experience side effects with antivirals. Some side effects from oral antivirals include altered sense of taste, diarrhea, nausea, dizziness, high blood pressure and muscle aches.
“Your provider will carefully discuss the risks and benefits with you, including any potential drug interactions, before prescribing any medication,” Dr. Brown said.
4. When should COVID-19 antiviral medications be taken?
“Oral antivirals are most effective if prescribed as soon as possible and within 5 days of onset of symptoms,” Erickson said.
Paxlovid and Lagevrio are oral medications that can be taken with or without food. It’s important to finish all prescribed medication to help them be as effective as possible.
5. Is there a difference between the COVID-19 vaccine and COVID-19 antiviral pills?
Antiviral pills aren’t a substitute for getting vaccinated. Data shows that unvaccinated adults are twice as likely to get reinfected with COVID-19 than those who get vaccinated after recovering from their illness.
“The best way to prevent serious illness from COVID-19 infection, including hospitalization and death, is to get the COVID-19 vaccine and your booster,” Dr. Brown said. “If you had COVID-19, you should still get the vaccine once your symptoms have resolved.”
If it’s been some time since your doses of the vaccine, now is the time to schedule a booster, if you’re eligible.
Read on to learn more ways to keep your family healthy and safe:
- COVID-19 and the Flu: Know the Symptoms
- Long COVID: 5 Big Questions Answered About Post-COVID Syndrome
- Mentally Coping with the Anxiety of COVID-19 Diagnosis