Can herpes simplex be cured?

Herpes is a sexually transmitted infection that you can carry without having any symptoms. Herpes can't be cured, but outbreaks can be managed and prevented.
Herpes is a sexually transmitted infection that you can carry without having any symptoms. Herpes can't be cured, but outbreaks can be managed and prevented.

When the topic of herpes arises, you might remember terrible slideshows of sexually transmitted diseases from health class. But herpes doesn’t have to be scary or shameful. The herpes simplex virus is very common, and it’s possible to carry it without having any symptoms. Some people don’t even know they have herpes. 

Herpes has no cure. The symptoms come in outbreaks, but the virus lasts forever. Different people have different symptoms and frequencies of outbreaks. With proper management and preventative treatment, the symptoms of herpes can be reduced. 

What is the herpes simplex virus?

The herpes simplex virus has two types. HSV-1 is typically associated with oral herpes, also known as cold sores, while HSV-2 typically causes genital herpes. However, either can pass on herpes symptoms to other parts of the body and other people. If you’ve got a cold sore or fever blister, then you’ve got herpes simplex. 

Herpes simplex is a contagious virus. Oral herpes affects around half of Americans, and genital herpes affects around one in six Americans. While annoying and painful, herpes simplex typically doesn’t lead to serious health problems.

Signs and symptoms of herpes simplex

Some people can carry herpes and not exhibit symptoms. However, herpes can still be contagious even if you never have an outbreak. 

Herpes outbreaks typically involve the following symptoms:

  • Itching, burning, or tingling in the affected area
  • Blisters on the skin
  • Sores in the place of the blisters that crust over and heal

Alongside the cold sores (or fever blisters), flu-like symptoms can manifest, such as fevers, aches, and swollen glands.

Herpes sores can reappear due to stress, irritated skin, poor diet, exhaustion, or a weakened immune system. Other times, they may appear randomly. But after cold sores fade, the virus stays behind, ready to activate again.

Causes of herpes simplex

Herpes is spread through saliva and skin-to-skin contact with someone who carries the virus. People who developed oral herpes when they were younger likely developed it from non-sexual contact through saliva, such as sharing food. Simple acts like kissing, touching infected skin, or sharing everyday objects can spread the virus.

Though contagious, the virus doesn’t live for long once it’s outside the body. Contracting herpes simplex from touching an infected doorknob, toilet seat, or other high-touch surfaces is unlikely.  

Most people contract HSV-1 as a child through skin-to-skin contact with an adult carrying the virus. HSV-2 is usually contracted through sexual contact with someone carrying the virus. 

Some people are more likely to contract HSV-2 than others:

  • Women
  • People with many sexual partners
  • People who had sex at a younger age
  • People with another sexually transmitted infection
  • People with a weakened immune system

Careful communication and safer sex can prevent the spread of herpes. 

Diagnosis for herpes simplex virus

Your physician can diagnose herpes after performing physical exams and administering certain tests. These tests include:

  • A viral culture that examines a tissue sample
  • A polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test that examines blood, sore tissue, or spinal fluid for the presence and type of herpes
  • A blood test that checks for the presence of herpes antibodies

Treatments for herpes simplex

There’s no cure for herpes. Sores often clear up on their own, but keeping the affected area clean and using antiviral creams can alleviate pain and irritation during flare-ups. These drugs and creams are most effective when applied as soon as irritation begins, before sores appear. Prompt treatment can shorten the length of the outbreak. 

Antiviral drugs

Certain antiviral drugs can shorten the lengths of outbreaks, while others that are taken daily can reduce the frequency of outbreaks and reduce the chance of spreading. Some prescription antiviral medicines are:

Home care

Certain measures can be taken to prevent outbreaks, such as wearing sunscreen on the affected area when spending time outside. There are also a few tricks to soothe outbreaks when they initially begin:

  • Take aspirin, acetaminophen, or ibuprofen to reduce swelling and relieve pain
  • Place a cool cloth on the sores
  • Keep the area dry and clean 
  • Wash your hands and don’t touch the area
  • For genital herpes, take lukewarm baths and wear soft, loose clothing to avoid irritation

Possible complications and side effects

Herpes simplex, while not dangerous on its own, can invite a host of other infections. Herpes sores can increase the risk of contracting other sexually transmitted infections. It’s also possible for a newborn to be exposed during the birthing process. Genital herpes can lead to swelling and infections of the urethra. 

If you are pregnant and have herpes, tell your doctor. They may want to give you antiviral medicines to prevent an outbreak when you deliver your baby. If an outbreak occurs at the time of delivery, a cesarean section may be suggested to prevent infecting your baby with herpes.

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Medically Reviewed on 2/9/2021
References
SOURCES:

American Academy of Dermatology Association: "HERPES SIMPLEX: DIAGNOSIS AND TREATMENT."

American Academy of Dermatology Association: "HERPES SIMPLEX: OVERVIEW."

American Academy of Dermatology Association: "HERPES SIMPLEX: WHO GETS AND CAUSES."

American Academy of Family Physicians: "Herpes."

Mayo Clinic: "Genital herpes."

Nationwide Children’s Hospital: "Herpes Simplex Virus."

Planned Parenthood: "Oral & Genital Herpes."