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Herpes, also known as the herpes simplex virus (HSV), is an infection that can appear in various parts of the body. It mainly affects the mouth and genitals.

The two most common types of HSV include:

  • HSV-1. This is transmitted through kissing or sharing utensils. It mainly causes oral herpes, resulting in cold sores and fever blisters around the mouth and on the face, although it can also cause genital herpes.
  • HSV-2. This is transmitted through sexual contact. It mainly causes genital herpes, resulting in outbreaks around the genital area. Although, less commonly, it can also cause oral herpes.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), an estimated 3.7 billion people under 50 years old (67 percent) have HSV-1 infection worldwide. Another 491 million people who are 15 to 49 years old (13 percent) may have HSV-2 infection. These figures are based on the WHO’s last available statistics, which were collected in 2016.

Herpes symptoms are mainly treated with three major medications taken in pill form. These are acyclovir (Zovirax), famciclovir (Famvir), and valacyclovir (Valtrex). In severe cases, treatment may include the intravenous (IV) medication acyclovir.

Symptoms

The symptoms of oral and genital herpes are similar. The only noticeable difference is where they appear on the body.

Herpes infections are characterized by blisters on the skin. These blisters can appear on the mouth, rectum, genital areas, and any area of the skin that came into contact with the infection. 

Before the blisters appear, you might experience an itch or tingle. The blisters will look like fluid-filled bumps. After a few days, the blisters break open and ooze. They will crust over before healing.

These blisters can go away on their own — without treatment — but they can be quite painful and uncomfortable. They might disappear for a while and reoccur. When blisters appear, it’s called an outbreak. 

During a herpes outbreak, you might also experience:

  • fever
  • headaches
  • body aches
  • swollen lymph nodes
  • fatigue

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the first outbreak usually appears 4 days after contracting the virus. However, it might take 2 to 12 days or more. This applies to both oral and genital herpes.

Genital herpes symptoms

Blisters may occur on your:

  • penis
  • scrotum
  • vulva
  • buttocks (near or around the anus)

Oral herpes symptoms

Blisters may occur on your:

  • mouth 
  • lips
  • face

When to talk with a doctor

Herpes isn’t curable, but it can be treated with antiviral medications. These medications can reduce the severity of an outbreak. 

If you suspect you have herpes, make an appointment with a doctor. It’s also a good idea to talk with your doctor about a herpes screening if:

  • your current or previous sexual partner has (or thinks they may have) herpes
  • you’re planning to have sex with a new partner
  • you had a risky sexual encounter

If you’ve already been diagnosed with herpes and you’re currently experiencing an outbreak, the outbreak might go away without causing complications and without treatment. 

However, it’s wise to make an appointment with your doctor if:

  • the outbreak is particularly painful or unbearable
  • you’re experiencing symptoms of other STIs 
  • you’re experiencing frequent, severe outbreaks

If you’re sexually active, it’s a good idea to have regular STI screenings. You can book appointments for STI screenings with your doctor’s office. You could also try a local clinic, certain pharmacies, or Planned Parenthood.

Is there a cure or treatment for herpes?

There’s no cure for the herpes virus yet. A herpes vaccine doesn’t currently exist, as the herpes virus has more complicated DNA than most infections, creating challenges for researchers.

However, medication can help with symptoms, like sores, and outbreaks. Medication also lowers the risk of transmission to others. You can take most medications for herpes orally, though you may also apply some as a cream or receive them by injection.

Initial treatment

When you first get a herpes diagnosis and have symptoms of an active infection, a brief 7- to 10-day course of antiviral therapy is usually prescribed.

This may help ease your symptoms and prevent them from worsening. If your symptoms don’t improve in that time, you may continue with the antiviral course for a longer duration.

After the initial treatment, your doctor may recommend one of two options, depending on how frequently you experience a flare-up: intermittent or suppressive treatment.

Intermittent treatment

Once your symptoms go away after the initial treatment, your doctor may recommend intermittent therapy. This is when you keep medication on hand to treat a flare-up. You’ll have to consult with your healthcare professional to see whether intermittent therapy is right for you.

Also know that it depends on the doctor.

Herpes is a virus that stays in your body and may cause recurrent outbreaks. Many doctors may not give prescriptions preemptively or for in-case use. However, telemedicine professionals often treat herpes and can prescribe antivirals for it. Because telemedicine is often available 24/7, it can be easier to get a prescription quickly if you have herpes.

Suppressive treatment

Taking the antiviral medication daily is a type of suppressive therapy. Your doctor may recommend this if you experience very frequent outbreaks.

This is a preventive measure, as taking herpes medication daily may significantly lower the number of outbreaks. 

Daily medication is also associated with a lower risk of transmission. A 2004 study concluded that once-daily suppressive therapy with valacyclovir significantly reduces transmission among couples of HSV-2, or genital herpes.

How far away is a cure for herpes?

There’s currently no cure for herpes, but that might change in the future. 

According to 2020 research published in Nature, scientists from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center removed 90 percent of the HSV-1 virus from cells in mice using gene editing.

However, it takes time to transition potential treatments from animals to humans. In a 2020 news article, one of the researchers that authored the Nature paper estimated that it would be at least 3 years before human trials. 

Scientists are also researching the possibility of creating a vaccine to prevent herpes. A 2022 study outlined a new approach to developing an mRNA vaccine for herpes. The vaccine mentioned in the study worked well in mice and guinea pigs.

The researchers say that they’re aiming to conduct human trials before the end of 2022, and the vaccine could be available within the next 10 years.

Treatment options

Treatment options for herpes symptoms include prescription medication, over-the-counter (OTC) medication, and home remedies. The best herpes treatment for you may depend on the type and severity of the infection.

Acyclovir (Zovirax)

Acyclovir is a prescription antiviral medication. Taken orally or applied topically, it treats the symptoms of genital herpes. It can decrease the pain of outbreaks and help them heal faster.

In people with weakened immune systems, acyclovir can also help prevent the risk of the virus spreading to other parts of the body, causing further infections.

In severe cases, a healthcare professional can administer the IV form of acyclovir.

Famciclovir (Famvir)

Famciclovir, taken orally in the form of a tablet, is a prescription medication for oral and genital herpes.

Doctors recommend famciclovir for people with strong immune systems, though it should not be the first course of treatment for people experiencing their first episode of genital herpes.

It’s also not recommended for people with weakened immune systems. Pregnant people shouldn’t use the medication either, as there’s limited data to assess its risk. (However, data based on animal trials show the drugs should pose a low risk for pregnant women, according to the CDC.)

While it’s not recommended as the first course of treatment for people experiencing their first outbreak, famciclovir may still be used to treat initial outbreaks for some. The medication also can be used for recurrent outbreaks.

Valacyclovir (Valtrex)

Valacyclovir comes in tablet form and is taken orally. It’s a prescription antiviral medication that can treat the symptoms and prevent flare-ups of oral and genital herpes.

People with frequent outbreaks can take valacyclovir daily as part of their suppressive therapy. It helps prevent future infections and lower the risk of transmission to sexual partners. 

As with famciclovir, data for pregnant people taking valacyclovir is limited, though the risk based on animal studies is low, according to the CDC.

Docosanol (Abreva)

Docosanol is the active ingredient in the OTC topical medication Abreva. Abreva is approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the treatment of recurrent herpes simplex labialis (HSL), the most recognized recurring infection of your lips and perioral tissue caused by HSV-1.

A 2012 study concluded that docosanol is safe and effective for treating recurrent HSL.

The CDC discourages using topical therapy in combination with antiviral drugs, as there’s minimal clinical benefits.

Denavir (Penciclovir)

Denavir (penciclovir) is a topical cream used to treat recurrent oral herpes, or cold sores that return. It’s approved by the FDA and considered safe to use for adults and children 12 years or older.

Studies from January 2001 and September 2001 have found penciclovir to be effective as a treatment. Though there hasn’t been much recent research on the drug, it’s still prescribed. However, topical treatments for genital herpes are generally discouraged by the CDC.

Home remedies

Like prescription and OTC medications for herpes, home remedies don’t cure the virus. However, they may provide relief for symptoms, like pain, cold sores, and blisters.

Some home remedies for herpes include:

  • applying a warm or cold compress
  • applying cornstarch or baking soda paste
  • making dietary changes
  • applying garlic or apple cider vinegar
  • incorporating supplements, like lysine and zinc
  • applying herbs and essential oils

Research from 2021 suggests that botanicals deserve more research as a potential treatment for herpes.

Risks and side effects

The three main treatments for herpes — acyclovir, famciclovir, and valacyclovir — are all FDA approved, though there are side effects and interactions to be aware of.

Common side effects of these antiviral medications include headaches and nausea. Famciclovir can cause dizziness or sleepiness, and confusion is mainly seen in older adults.

Acyclovir and valacyclovir, which are very similar to each other, can cause your kidneys to stop working. If you have kidney issues, your doctor may prescribe a lower dose. These medications can interact with other medications, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen. This may weaken kidney function.

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How to prevent herpes

It’s advised to avoid sexual and oral contact with someone who is currently experiencing a herpes outbreak, but it’s also important to remember that herpes is transmittable even when it is dormant. The risk during latent periods is lower, but it’s not zero.

While barrier methods can reduce your risk of contracting or transmitting an STI, there is still a risk that you could get herpes during sexual contact if you’re with someone who has it.

If you develop herpes, there are certain precautions you can take to reduce transmission to others. These include:

  • using barriers, like condoms and dental dams, during sex
  • avoiding sexual contact or kissing while you’re having a herpes outbreak 
  • taking medications, such as those listed above; these may be associated with lower risk of herpes transmission, though it’s best to speak with your doctor

If you do develop herpes, inform your sexual partner(s).

It’s important to tell your doctor if you’re pregnant and develop herpes, as the virus can spread to the infant during vaginal delivery. Herpes can be dangerous for newborns. Inform your doctor as soon as possible so that they can help you plan and take precautions to help prevent transmission to your baby.

Frequently asked questions

What happens if herpes is left untreated?

Without treatment, sores and outbreaks usually heal on their own. Oral herpes is usually considered a mild infection, but complications may appear in people with weakened immune systems.

The risk of complications with genital herpes is also low, though these include inflammation, swelling, and pain.

Passing HSV-2 to a newborn can be dangerous, however. Doctors may recommend a cesarean delivery to pregnant people with genital herpes, according to the CDC.

Can herpes be cured by antibiotics?

No. However, antibiotics may be helpful if you have both an infection caused by bacteria as well an infection with the herpes virus.

In this case, an antibiotic will treat the bacterial infection and may make those symptoms go away, but the herpes virus will remain in your body. Antibiotics are ineffective against viruses.

Can you test for herpes at home?

Yes, there are at-home sexually transmitted infection (STI) tests for herpes.

LetsGetChecked is a health and diagnostic company that offers home laboratory testing services. The home Herpes Test checks for HSV-1 and HSV-2 by taking a blood sample from your finger.

Read more about at-home herpes tests here.

Can you prevent herpes outbreaks?

Taking good care of yourself can help prevent future herpes outbreaks. Eating nutritious foods, getting plenty of sleep, and avoiding stress can all help keep outbreaks from occurring.

If you have frequent outbreaks, your doctor may recommend that you take medication daily. This is called suppressive therapy. It can help prevent future breakouts and lower your chances of sharing herpes with your partner(s).

Experts aren’t sure what causes genital herpes outbreaks — whether it’s sex, your period, stress, skin irritation, or surgery. Oral herpes outbreaks can be caused by sunburn, other infections, or injuries to your lips.

The bottom line

Herpes is a virus that, while not yet curable, is considered mild to manage. The symptoms, mainly cold sores on your mouth and blisters on your genitals, are usually temporary and can go away with treatment.

There are home remedies, OTC medications, and prescription medications for herpes.

If you think you might have herpes, talk with your doctor about testing and treatment options right away.


Sian Ferguson is a freelance writer and editor based in Grahamstown, South Africa. Her writing covers issues relating to social justice, cannabis, and health. You can reach out to her on Twitter.


Lacey Bourassa is a health, wellness, and beauty writer based in Southern California. She holds a BA in English. Her work has appeared in digital publications like Livestrong, Verywell, Business Insider, Eat This Not That, and others. When she’s not writing, Lacey is likely pursuing her other interests: skin care, plant-based cooking, pilates, and traveling. You can keep up with her by visiting her website or her blog.