Antiviral drugs are typically prescribed when it comes to fighting the flu and other conditions involving the transmission and spread of viruses. These are distinct from the flu vaccine, which is preventative against influenza and its complications. Once one falls ill, antivirals form a second line of defense in treating flu.
Unfortunately, viruses are challenging to detect, mutate quickly, and are so individual that what works against one will not likely work against another. Viruses have just a few proteins and enzymes that can be targeted, and these differ significantly, even within the same class of virus.
Historically, this has meant that antiviral drug development lagged significantly behind antibiotics. It was not until 1967 that the first viral enzyme was discovered, and ways of targeting viruses were directly established. A game-changer was the patenting (in 1974) and use (in the 1980s) of Acyclovir, which treats conditions such as chicken pox, herpes simplex, and shingles. The drug essentially converts within cells to resemble DNA, which tricks the DNA polymerase within a virus into using the medicine to produce its DNA chains. This, in turn, halts replication.