Have you or someone you know been diagnosed with herpes? Are you frantically searching the internet for a herpes cure? Don’t panic! While there is currently no cure for herpes, the virus is actually very common and has few long-term health consequences.
While we can’t tell you how to cure herpes for good, we can discuss the treatment options that are currently out there, including reviewing the evidence for herpes natural cures and treatments. We’ll also review the most promising herpes cure research currently underway. It may technically be “incurable,” but herpes does not have to be scary or horrible!
What Is Herpes?
You probably know herpes as one of the most dreaded sexually transmitted diseases and the punchline to a number of lame jokes. But a lot of the hoopla around herpes is overblown.
In this section we’ll answer a few basic herpes questions to provide some background before we review treatments and herpes cure research.
Herpes is a very common viral infection. There are actually eight different herpes viruses, but the ones most commonly referred to as “herpes” are HSV-1 and HSV-2. HSV stands for “herpes simplex virus.”
What’s the Difference Between Genital and Oral Herpes?
Simply put, genital herpes is a herpes infection around your genitals, and oral herpes is a herpes infection around your mouth. An oral herpes outbreak is typically known as a cold sore.
HSV-1 causes most oral herpes infections and HSV-2 causes most genital herpes infections. However, it is possible for HSV-1 to cause genital herpes infection. It is also possible (although quite unlikely) for HSV-2 to cause oral herpes infection.
If you have HSV-1 infection in your mouth and perform oral sex on your partner, they could contract HSV-1 genitally. This is true even if you do not currently have a cold sore!
What Are the Symptoms of Herpes?
Herpes infection can (but does not always) cause painful, itchy, fluid-filled lesions or sores to erupt along the site of infection. This is usually in the mouth or genital area. These lesions will eventually scab over, and then heal. When you do have lesions, it’s called an outbreak.
Some people only have one outbreak, while others may have multiple outbreaks over time. If you do have recurrent outbreaks, you will typically have the most outbreaks in the first year after infection and then end up having fewer outbreaks as time passes.
The first outbreak is usually the most severe. If you have HSV-2, you may also experience flu-like symptoms during the first outbreak.
However, many people with herpes never have an outbreak. If you never have an outbreak or your initial outbreak is very mild and you mistake it for something else (like chafing or an ingrown hair), you probably won’t even know that you have herpes. The CDC actually does not recommend routine screening for herpes, because doctors can’t do anything for asymptomatic cases.
Herpes doesn’t typically have any long-term complications. However, if you have genital herpes, you could pass herpes to your infant during the pregnancy or childbirth. So if you do have herpes, and you are pregnant, disclose to your physician.
How Is Herpes Spread?
Herpes is a virus transmitted through skin-to-skin contact.HSV-1 is mostly spread mouth-to-mouth, by kissing, or from mouth-to-genitals through oral sex. HSV-2 is mostly passed by genital-to-genital or genital-anal contact (whether intercourse is involved or not). The virus dies quickly in the air, so it can’t be transmitted through things like touching the clothes of an infected person or sitting on a toilet seat after them.
You can transmit herpes even when you don’t have symptoms. The virus can “shed” from the infected area without you having lesions or sores. Because many people don’t know they have herpes, this means that herpes (both HSV-1 and HSV-2) gets spread around quite a bit by people who don’t even realize they are capable of transmitting it. T
he upshot of all of this is that contrary to popular belief, herpes is not evidence of or caused by sexual promiscuity. It is highly contagious and is mostly passed unknowingly.
How Common Is Herpes?
Even though it is often stigmatized, herpes is incredibly common.
The WHO estimates that 67% of the world has HSV-1 infection. In the United States, about one in six people 14-49 have genital herpes (which is mostly caused by HSV-2). And most of those people have no idea they have it. A study of herpes carriers in New York City found that 90% of people with HSV-2 infection did not know that they had it.
Is There a Cure for Herpes?
If you’re wondering how to cure herpes or how to get rid of herpes, the truth is that you can’t. There isn’t currently a cure for herpes. This means that once you have the virus in your body, you have it forever. It lurks in the spinal ganglia nerves in a latent state indefinitely. Reactivation of the virus causes outbreaks. But even if it never reactivates, you’ll still be infected (and you can still pass it on to others). So anything out there that claims to be a true herpes cure is not.
This does not mean that herpes is a death sentence; in terms of long-term chronic conditions, herpes is pretty benign.
Herpes also does not mean that you are doomed to be alone forever. Disclosing your status to every new sexual partner may be scary, and if it does lead to rejection, it hurts. But people with herpes have successful hookups, relationships, and marriages all the time—both with people with herpes and people without herpes.
While there is no cure for herpes currently, there are effective herpes treatments to help you suppress and manage outbreaks and to limit herpes transmission. Additionally, there is research underway searching for a herpes cure.
Will There Ever Be a Cure for Herpes?
Just because there isn’t currently a herpes cure doesn’t mean there will never be. In fact, there is some promising herpes cure research currently in development that might really cure herpes, or at least improve treatment and/or prevent transmission.
It can be frustrating to keep up with herpes cure research when so many people constantly claim to have found a breakthrough. A few years ago, people claimed there would be a herpes cure in 2015. Then that there would be a herpes cure in 2016, and 2017, and now 2018 and 2019 and so on. While it’s definitely too late to prove those “Cure for herpes 2015!” headlines right, progress on a cure for herpes is being made. It’s just a bit slow.
Here’s what’s currently in the works:
There are a huge number of herpes vaccines currently in development. Some of these vaccines are traditional, preventative vaccines, which means they prevent you from contracting the disease if you don’t have it. But most of the vaccines in development are therapeutic vaccines. Therapeutic vaccines are treatments that stimulate the immune system of people who already have a disease. So they could potentially offer an additional treatment option for people who already have the virus. Here are the most notable vaccines currently in the works:
- The most far along of these vaccines is the therapeutic vaccine Gen003, which has completed Phase II clinical trials. Vaccines must go through three successively larger phases of trials before they become generally available. Based on the data from the Phase II trial, Gen003 appears to have similar efficacy in reducing outbreaks as daily suppressive therapy for genital herpes. While this is hardly a herpes cure, it does have potential as an alternative treatment option.
- Theravax is another very promising therapeutic herpes vaccine for HSV-2 that just completed Phase I safety trials in St. Kitt’s and Nevis. It is based on over a decade of research by Dr. Bill Halford of Southern Illinois University, and is designed to make the virus receded to basically undetectable (and un-transmittable) levels in the body. (Unfortunately, Dr. Halford just passed away, but his work will continue in the hands of his research team.)
- Nanobio is also in the early stages of developing a preventive herpes vaccine for intranasal (instead of intravenous) delivery. (So, it goes in your nose and doesn’t have a needle). They just received a large grant for their work.
- Dr. Akiko Iwasaki of Yale and Dr. Harvey M. Friedman of the University of Pennsylvania are also each in the preclinical phases of developing herpes vaccines in their respective labs.
Another research avenue is the investigation of new, more powerful herpes drugs. A dramatic reduction in viral shedding compared to current treatments could act as a functional herpes cure. Here are some intriguing new drugs in development:
- Priteliver is a new anti-viral that was twice as effective as Valtrex in clinical trials. While further trials are currently on hold as long-term safety is investigated, hopefully there will be further action on this drug in the future as it has lots of potential based on preliminary data.
- Researchers from the University of Utah have found that spironolactone, a blood pressure drug, blocks Epstein-Barr virus production. Because EBV is a herpes virus, this means that spironolactone may have clinical application against all herpes viruses, including HSV-1 and HSV-2.
- Harvard’s Knipe laboratory is also currently working on a novel drug to treat herpes.
You can see the National Institute of Health’s list of herpes drugs currently in the development in the United States here.
The most cutting-edge potential new cure for herpes is gene editing using CRISPR, which could potentially eliminate the virus from the body. In other words, that’s a real, true herpes cure. A promising animal study has shown that CRISPR can severely inhibit herpes viral replication. Dr. Bryan Cullen of Duke University is also working on a CRISPR-based oral and genital herpes cure.
How to Treat Herpes
In this section, we’ll go over three aspects of herpes treatment: how to treat the virus to suppress and shorten outbreaks, how to address actual outbreaks themselves, and how to prevent transmission to other people.
How to Suppress and Shorten Outbreaks
There are currently three antiviral drugs that treat herpes: acyclovir (brand name Zovirax), Famcyclovir (brand name Famvir), and Valacyclovir (brand name Valtrex). These are typically given in pill form, although if an outbreak is very severe, acyclovir can also be given by injection. Acyclovir is also available as a topical ointment, but it’s only for cold sores—you should not apply it to genital herpes sores.
All of these drugs inhibit the reproduction of the herpes virus in the body. They all have the potential side effects of gastrointestinal distress and headache.
Antivirals can make a primary herpes outbreak much less severe. For subsequent outbreaks, antiviral treatment at the first sign of an outbreak can shorten it by 1-2 days. Taking antivirals whenever you have an outbreak is called episodic therapy.
People with frequent outbreaks may take suppressive therapy, where they take a daily dose of antivirals to prevent outbreaks. On suppressive therapy, people usually see their outbreaks significantly decrease or even stop. So for some people (though not all), suppressive therapy acts as a functional genital herpes cure because they will become asymptomatic (although still potentially contagious).
Even though suppressive therapy is primarily meant for genital herpes, doctors sometimes prescribe suppressive therapy to people with recurrent cold sores.
How to Address the Symptoms of an Outbreak
You may also be wondering how to best deal with the symptoms of a herpes outbreak, given that the ulcers can be quite painful. Here are some tips to help increase your comfort while the sores are healing:
- Keep sores dry and clean. In general, you should try to keep your sores dry to speed healing. This means that you should avoid leading ointments or lotions on your sores for extended periods of time unless prescribed. Additionally, do not bandage sores; this will keep them from staying dry. However, you may find that taking warm (or cool) baths provide some symptomatic relief. Some people find that putting Epsom salt in their bath also cuts down on irritation. To dry your sores, you can use a blow dryer on the cool setting. You can also apply cornstarch to help keep sores dry.
- Try not to touch or pick at sores. Because the virus is shedding from the sores, it’s important that you do not touch or pick at your sores. If you touch the sores and then touch other areas on your body, you could spread the virus there. So if you need to touch the sores, wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water afterwards.
- Wear loose clothing and loose cotton underpants. Loose clothing and loose underpants will help prevent rubbing on the sores. Wearing cotton instead of synthetic fibers will whisk moisture away from the sores.
- Take painkillers. Over-the-counter painkillers like acetaminophen (like Tylenol) or ibuprofen (like Aleve) can help provide symptomatic relief of the pain.
- Apply ice packs or cool compresses. Applying periodic ice packs or cool compresses can also provide symptomatic relief. Some people apply cool tea bags as cold compresses.
- Drink lots of water and get lots of rest. This will help speed your body’s healing processes.
- Cut down on pain with urination. Herpes sores can burn and sting when you pee. There are several strategies that can help with this:
- Pee in a warm bath or shower (you can also pour a bottle of warm water on yourself over the toilet).
- Apply petroleum jelly or a topical anesthetic to the sores before peeing to cut down on pain. (If you do this, you’ll need to wash off the ointment afterwards, which might be a hassle.)
How to Prevent Transmission
If you do have herpes, how can you prevent it from spreading? Here are three things you can do:
- Abstain from sex when you have an outbreak. From the moment you feel an outbreak coming on (prodrome) to seven days after it heals, completely abstain from any naked-time activity that will expose your partner(s) to skin contact with the infected area. You’re shedding the most copies of the herpes virus then.
- Use condoms with all partners. Condom use decreases the chances of herpes transmission, but does not completely eliminate transmission risk. However, some studies have suggested that the protective effect is much better for women with infected male partners than for men with infected female partners. This is perhaps because in women, the virus may shed from vulvar skin that comes into contact with uncovered skin around the penis even when the insertive partner wears a condom. Unfortunately, there is not much data available on transmission rates between same-sex couples. The same logic about condoms may apply for male-male intercourse, i.e. that the receptive partner gets more protection from condom use than the insertive partner. But there’s not reliable data (yet).
- Take suppressive therapy. Not everyone with herpes takes suppressive antiviral therapy, but if you are in a serodiscordant relationship (you have herpes and your partner does not), it may be worth it to you to take daily antivirals to lower your viral shedding. Suppressive therapy reduces the risk of transmission by about half.
Interestingly, HSV-1 infection may provide a slight protective effect against contracting HSV-2. But there are people with both kinds of the virus, so this is hardly an HSV-2 cure.
Herpes Natural Cures: Do They Work?
If you have been diagnosed with herpes, you’ve probably Googled “can you cure herpes?” or “how to get rid of herpes” and gotten lots of results back from natural and alternative medicine websites. While it can be tempting to believe that these sites have a cure for genital herpes or persistent cold sores, it’s not true.
There is no such thing as a natural cure for herpes. At present, nothing can rid your body of the virus, in spite of the claims of various so-called natural healers. Even if you are asymptomatic, you still have the the virus in an inactive state in your nerve cells.
One major natural healer on the herpes scene was Dr. Sebi, a self-educated, self-proclaimed doctor from Honduras. Dr. Sebi claimed to have a cure for herpes, AIDs, and tons of other diseases. He purported that eating a special diet and drinking his herbal concoctions could cure basically any illness. His methods had some famous proponents, like Lisa “Left-Eye” Lopes of the band TLC. Under Dr. Sebi’s guidance, she undertook a 40-day fast (something no human should attempt) and claimed that he cured her of herpes. But Dr. Sebi’s herpes cure absolutely does not work. There is no scientific research to support the idea that a particular herbal concoction, or fasting, or a special diet, can cure herpes completely.
However, not all herpes natural cures claim to rid your body of the virus. Some natural herpes treatments are just meant to heal and/or prevent outbreaks without purporting to send the herpes virus packing for good.
Do any of these natural cures actually work to suppress or shorten outbreaks? Let’s review the evidence for some of the most common alternative and natural treatments for herpes outbreaks:
Topical aloe vera is probably one of the most popular natural treatments for herpes outbreaks. There’s at least some evidence of aloe’s effectiveness for a variety of skin conditions, including the healing of burns, wounds, and initial genital herpes outbreaks. So it might make your outbreak shorter, especially your initial outbreak. Additionally, many people find that the cooling sensation of aloe brings some symptomatic relief to herpes sores. So you may find some benefit to aloe even if it doesn’t shorten your outbreak.
Echinacea is a popular immune-booster. Thus, natural health sites recommend it as a natural treatment for many conditions, including as a natural cure for herpes outbreaks. While some evidence suggests that taking echinacea before infection might have a positive influence on the course of infection, most research finds that echinacea has no effect on the course of herpes outbreaks in those who are already infected.
There are tons of specific dietary guidelines that supposedly help prevent herpes outbreaks. One popular guideline is to eat foods high in the amino acid lysine and low in the amino acid arginine, because the herpes virus needs arginine to replicate and lysine inhibits the absorption of arginine. (This is the same logic behind L-lysine supplementation mentioned below).
Lots of natural health sites also recommend avoiding simple and refined carbs, caffeine, and alcohol because they claim that they will trigger outbreaks.
There’s currently no evidence that a particular herpes diet regimen can work for everyone, or that certain foods are universal herpes outbreak triggers. But that doesn’t mean that certain foods aren’t herpes triggers for you in particular. Unfortunately, you’ll have to discover that yourself through trial and error.
Additionally, getting proper nutrition is important for your immune system to function, and a stronger immune system is better equipped to fight off herpes outbreaks. So it’s probably a good idea to try to eat a healthy diet.
Can exercise stave off herpes outbreaks? While there hasn’t been any research studying the effects of exercise on herpes in particular, there are some reasons to believe exercise might have a beneficial effect for individuals with herpes in suppressing outbreaks. First, persistent stress is a potential outbreak trigger, and regular exercise is a known stress-relief strategy.
Second, moderate exercise is an immune booster, and a healthy immune system helps your body fight off the herpes virus. Note, however, that high-intensity exercise (like a marathon, for example) actually depresses the immune system, which could cause an outbreak.
Does consuming raw garlic or garlic pills prevent herpes outbreaks or cure herpes outbreaks faster? Garlic does appear to have antiviral properties against herpes viruses, but once again, this does not necessarily mean it is effective at suppressing or healing outbreaks in humans.
Some sources advise placing a topical garlic-based paste over herpes lesions. Do not do this! Garlic can cause painful chemical burns when applied topically. If you want to add garlic to your herpes-fighting regimen, eat it, don’t apply it.
Some people recommend eating ginger or applying a ginger paste to herpes lesions as a natural herpes cure for outbreaks. There have been some experiments that show that ginger essential oil has an antiviral effect against HSV-2. However, it is unclear if this means that eating or applying ginger would have any beneficial effect in humans. Additionally, topical ginger application could cause local skin irritation.
Some claim that consuming the gypsy mushroom (Rozites Caperata), either as a whole fungus or in caplet form, can help suppress herpes outbreaks. While the mushroom does appear to contain antiviral compounds, it’s a long way from that information to any kind of evidence that consuming the mushroom helps fight herpes in humans. So it might help, but it’s too early to say.
Another popular natural herpes treatment is applications of honey, propolis, or other honey products to herpes lesions. There’s actually some promising evidence of the antiviral properties of honey and honey products against the herpes virus. Small studies have suggested that an application of honey products speeds the healing of herpes lesions. While this evidence is far from conclusive, at the very least, applying honey to herpes lesions doesn’t appear to hurt the healing process, and no one has reported any serious side effects to date. If you do decide to try this, it’s probably best to use unprocessed (raw) honey, as more of the beneficial compounds in the honey will be intact.
Lemon balm (or Melissa officinalis) is another popular herpes natural remedy. The most popular ways to use lemon balm are to drink lemon balm tea or apply topical lemon balm ointment to cold sores or genital herpes lesions.
There is actually some research to support this herbal remedy. Lemon balm has antiviral properties against the herpes virus, leading researchers to suggest that topical application might be effective. Research with human subjects with HSV-1 also suggests that topical application of lemon balm might help heal lesions.
L-Lysine Amino Acid Therapy
Researchers considered lysine, an amino acid, as an early potential treatment for herpes before scientists created an effective antiviral. This is because the herpes virus needs the amino acid arginine to replicate, and lysine inhibits the absorption of arginine. However, evidence of the effectiveness of lysine supplementation for suppressing outbreaks is contradictory, with some studies showing a benefit and some showing no benefit at all. Also note that extensive lysine supplementation can cause digestive upset and diarrhea.
Seaweed is another popular natural herpes treatment. Certain types of seaweed (especially red seaweed) exhibit antiviral activity against both HSV-1 and HSV-2. But as is a common theme for many of these natural cures, just because seaweed has antiviral properties doesn’t necessarily mean that eating seaweed or taking seaweed supplements will help suppress herpes outbreaks. There just isn’t enough research yet.
The plant commonly called self-heal, all-heal, or healall (and otherwise known as Prunella Vulgaris) is another popular natural herpes treatment. You can ingest the plant directly or take it as a tea or extract. As with the gypsy mushroom, there’s evidence of its antiviral properties against herpes viruses. But, again, there’s a ways to go until we have solid evidence of its effectiveness in suppressing or managing outbreaks.
Ingesting siberian ginseng (or Eleutherococcus senticosus) supplements is also a natural herpes treatment. There is some limited research with human subjects to suggest that siberian ginseng supplementation may suppress outbreaks and/or make them shorter. But there’s not enough rigorous evidence to be completely sure yet.
Zinc is another very popular alternative herpes treatment. People either apply topical zinc preparations or take zinc supplements orally. The most popular topical preparations are zinc oxide and zinc sulfate. Zinc oxide does have HSV-2 antiviral action. Additionally, some human studies have demonstrated that topical zinc oxide speeds the healing of herpes lesions. Similarly, topical zinc sulfate appears to speed the healing of herpes outbreaks and help prevent outbreaks. So the evidence for zinc as an alternative herpes treatment (at least topically) is pretty promising.
However, application of topical zinc salts like zinc oxide and zinc sulfate to mucosal surfaces (i.e. intravaginally) may cause damage to those cells and thus increase susceptibility to other infections, so use with caution on any mucus membranes.
The Bottom Line on Natural Treatments
If you’d like to try alternative or natural herpes treatments, know the evidence. None of these things are a genuine cure for herpes because none of them will rid your body of the virus. However, some of them might help heal outbreaks faster, or even suppress them.
As it stands, the treatments with the most scientific support are:
- Aloe vera (applied topically)
- Topical application of zinc salts
- Topical application of honey products
- Lemon balm
- Healthy diet and moderate exercise to maintain your immune system
Remember that if you do use topical treatments, let them dry if you can. Don’t keep the sores wet for too long!
Recap: Is There a Cure for Herpes?
If you’re wondering how to cure herpes, unfortunately, there’s not currently a cure for herpes. If you have the virus, it stays in your body forever, and you can transmit it by skin-to-skin contact even when you are asymptomatic. When you’re not having an outbreak, the virus lingers in your ganglia in a latent state. So the answer to “can you get rid of herpes” and “can herpes be cured?” is, unfortunately, no.
Just because there’s no herpes cure now doesn’t mean that there won’t be one in the future. There are currently herpes vaccines, new herpes drugs, and even a potential herpes cure with gene editing technology in development!
Additionally, even though there currently no cure for herpes, there are still treatments that help deal with the symptoms of the virus and prevent transmission. If you have herpes, you can take antiviral therapy to shorten or suppress outbreaks. During outbreaks, keeping lesions clean and dry and wearing loose cotton clothing should help. To prevent transmission, avoid sex during outbreaks, use barrier protection, and take suppressive therapy.
If you’re hoping for a herpes cure, you may find lots of sites that claim that they have a herpes natural cure. While no natural cure for herpes can rid your body of the virus, some natural herpes treatments may actually provide some relief for outbreaks or even help suppress them. The most evidence-supported natural herpes treatments at this point are topical applications of zinc salts, aloe, or honey products; ingesting or applying lemon balm, and maintaining a healthy diet and moderate exercise.
Worried about the possibility of other STDs and genital health complaints? We can help you figure out what white vaginal discharge means, what brown discharge means, and what to do if you’re bleeding during sex. But you don’t have to worry about blue waffles disease!
If you’re feeling a lot of grief about your herpes diagnosis, it might make sense to talk to a grief counselor. They aren’t just for bereavement!