At this time, there is no cure for herpes. Although some people successfully suppress viral outbreaks, the virus is present in the nervous system of its host for life.
In 1982, TIME magazine ran a cover story that described herpes as “The New Scarlet Letter”—a source of shame and ostracization. However, the unwarranted hysteria surrounding what has been labeled “the herpes epidemic” was soon eclipsed by the ferocious emergence of another sexually transmitted disease: the AIDS virus, which was deadly and untreatable at the time. Nevertheless, herpes, while rarely fatal, remains an incurable disease.1
What are the types of herpes viruses?
When people hear the word “herpes,” it is herpes simplex—the virus that causes cold sores on the lips and genital lesions—that commonly comes to mind. However, Herpesviridae represents a large family of viruses that, in addition to herpes simplex 1 and 2, includes herpes zoster, the cause of chicken pox and shingles; Epstein-Barr virus, which causes mononucleosis and is implicated in other diseases as well; cytomegalovirus, which is estimated to infect up to 80% of all U.S. adults by the age of 40; roseola, which commonly affects infants; human herpesvirus 7, another childhood disease; and Kaposi’s sarcoma.2
Other members of the herpes family infect animals, such as the feline herpes virus that causes upper respiratory infections in cats. While herpes simplex type 1 is responsible for the majority of oral herpes infections that cause cold sores and type 2 is more often associated with the blisters that characterize genital herpes, both forms of the virus can be found in either area.
Herpes treatment and cold sores
Topical acyclovir, the first pharmaceutical treatment designed to improve herpes symptoms and healing time, entered the market the same year as the publication of the TIME article.3
Acyclovir was subsequently approved as an oral drug to be consumed up to five times daily, beginning at the first sign of a herpes lesion. The approval of acyclovir was followed by the release of famciclovir and valacyclovir. In addition to treating active lesions, these drugs can be used daily for long-term suppression by individuals who experience frequent outbreaks.
Although these antiviral drugs lower a user’s viral load, they do not guarantee protection against transmission of the virus.
Is there a natural cure for herpes?
Natural, over-the-counter options
While not curative, there are natural treatments that may help improve defenses against active lesions or improve symptoms. The amino acid L-lysine has been used to combat herpes since long before the advent of the currently used antiviral drugs. Lysine competes with another amino acid, arginine, which is needed for the herpes virus to replicate. Trials that evaluated the effects of L-lysine among people with recurrent outbreaks have resulted in fewer active infections, decreased symptoms and faster healing time in comparison with a placebo.4,5
Vitamin C’s well-known antiviral effect has been tested against herpes in several studies.6 In a small trial, vitamin C and bioflavonoids were helpful when begun during the prodrome stage prior to the appearance of a blister, which is characterized by itching, tingling and burning.7
Other natural therapies that may be beneficial for herpes include fucoidan (a compound derived from brown seaweed), curcumin, lactoferrin and reishi mushroom.8-11
There is medical evidence indicating that the herpes simplex virus more readily reproduces during times of stress.12 Anyone plagued by frequent outbreaks can attest to this phenomenon. Insufficient sleep, overworking, negative emotions and sun exposure are common triggers.
How is herpes prevented?
Herpes simplex is generally spread via skin-to-skin contact in oral or genital areas. While it is recommended to avoid unprotected contact with people who have visible blisters, it should be noted that viral shedding has been documented even in the absence of lesions.13
Herpes virus and the brain
While a cold sore may appear relatively innocuous, recent research has found the presence of the herpes virus in the brains of patients with Alzheimer’s disease.14 Although the finding does not establish a causative effect for the virus, a new Phase II study involving adults with mild Alzheimer’s disease who test positive for herpes simplex virus 1 or 2 will evaluate the effects of the antiviral valacyclovir as a possible therapy for slowing the disease.15
How far away is a cure for herpes?
While there’s no cure in sight, effective medications are available that may be all that’s needed to keep the virus dormant for some individuals. Natural interventions may be supportive as well. Although herpes may not warrant the stigma that has plagued this disease, the link with Alzheimer’s disease suggests that there is a lot we still don’t know about the potential risks of herpes.
- “Genital Herpes – CDC Fact Sheet.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2017 Aug 28. https://www.cdc.gov/std/herpes/stdfact-herpes.htm
- “Neurological Consequences of Cytomegalovirus Infection.” National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, National Institutes of Health. 2018 Sep 13. https://www.ninds.nih.gov/Disorders/All-Disorders/Neurological-Consequences-Cytomegalovirus-Infection-Information-Page
- “Drugs@FDA: FDA Approved Drug Products.” U.S. Food & Drug Administration. https://www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/cder/daf/index.cfm?event=overview.process&ApplNo=018604
- Griffith RS et al. Dermatologica. 1987;175(4):183-90.
- McCune MA et al. Cutis. 1984 Oct;34(4):366-73.
- Hemila H. Nutrients. 2017 Mar 29;9(4).
- Terezhalmy GT et al. Oral Surg Oral Med Oral Pathol. 1978 Jan;45(1):56-62.
- Hayashi K et al. Int Immunopharmacol. 2008 Jan;8(1):109-16.
- Kutluay SB et al. Virology. 2008 Apr 10;373(2):239-47.
- Marchetti M et al. Biochimie. 2009 Jan;91(1):155-9.
- Eo SK et al. J Ethnopharmacol. 2000 Oct;72(3):475-81.
- Vink E et al. J Virol. 2017 Jun 26;91(14).
- Johnston C et al. Clin Microbiol Rev. 2016 Jan;29(1):149-61.
- Haas JG et al. Trends Neurosci. 2018 Sep;41(9):570-573.