There is currently no cure available for genital herpes. Most people with genital herpes lead normal lives and manage to control symptoms by preventing herpes outbreaks and taking medications when necessary.
What you need to know about genital herpes
Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted disease caused by two types of herpes simplex virus – type 1 (HSV-1) and type 2 (HSV-2). It is very common with an estimated 20% to 30% of people in the U.S. having HSV-2 and around 65% of people being carriers of HSV-1.
Herpes of the genitals is usually spread by contact of the sexual organs (vaginal or anal sex) but HSV-2 can also be transmitted via oral sex. If a person carries herpes type 1 and engages in oral sex, their partner could get genital herpes. The virus is transmitted via open sores, the skin, saliva, and genital secretions.
Genital herpes is more infectious at times when a person is experiencing an outbreak. But how do you know if you’ve got herpes? Some people may never know because they never experience a herpes outbreak whilst others may show common symptoms of genital herpes such as sores on and surrounding the genitalia or the mouth (in the case of HSV-1).
Is there a cure for genital herpes?
Unfortunately, there is no cure for HSV-1 or HSV-2. There are also no vaccinations which makes it difficult to prevent herpes. Scientists are actively working on vaccines for HSV, but so far, none have been approved for market launch.
In 2010, pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline developed a vaccine that was partially effective. Called Simplirix, it provided effective protection for 58% of patients with HSV-1, but for only 20% of HSV-2 patients. The company has since decided to stop further development of the vaccine.
Other research teams are using gene-editing tools like CRISPR to modify the virus. Their goal is to eliminate it completely one day. Early-stage results appear to be promising. For example, scientists at Cornell University have developed a gene-editing tool that lets them erase much longer segments of DNA. "My lab spent the past ten years figuring out how CRISPR-Cas3 works. I am thrilled that my colleagues and I finally demonstrated its genome editing activity in human cells," explained Ailong Ke, professor of molecular biology and genetics at Cornell. "Our tools can be made to target these viruses very specifically and then erase them very efficiently. In theory, it could provide a cure for these viral diseases."
Genital herpes treatments
Many carriers of HSV won’t notice any symptoms while others may experience outbreaks of painful sores.
When it comes to managing herpes, avoiding outbreaks is often the best approach. A strong immune system is vital to preventing herpes sores. Factors that can contribute to a weakened immune system include:
- Other medical conditions
You can boost your immune system naturally by eating a healthy and balanced diet that includes vital vitamins and minerals and exercise regularly. Avoid smoking and drinking large amounts of alcohol.
Herpes outbreaks can come on within 4 days after infection and last up to 2 weeks. Open sores and ulcers often cause discomfort and pain. But there are some things you can do to make yourself more comfortable. Herpes home treatments include:
- Over-the-counter painkillers to reduce pain
- Use compresses to ease itching
- Apply topical herpes treatments to help speed up the healing process
- Do not cover up open sores
Antiviral medications effectively help speed up recovery after an outbreak. Common herpes medicines include:
Patients can also suppress herpes outbreaks long-term by taking lower doses of antivirals every day.
The majority of antiviral medicines are well-tolerated by most people. Side effects you should be aware of include:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Fatigue or tiredness
- Muscle aches
- Hair loss
- Changes to vision
It is usually not advised to take antivirals long-term (more than 6 months) as they have been linked to kidney damage. This effect can be minimized by mixing antivirals with charcoal. According to Deepak Shukla, professor of ophthalmology, microbiology, and immunology at the University of Illinois: “Combing herpes medication with activated charcoal makes the drug much more efficient so less of the drug is needed to achieve the same effect. Using less of the drug can help reduce the risk of kidney damage, which can be significant when these drugs are used over long periods of time.”
But the scientific community warns that there is a danger the virus could develop a resistance to existing medications over time. Therefore, research into new medications is ongoing.
Living with genital herpes
Symptoms and outbreaks of genital herpes are completely manageable. Ensure that your immune system is healthy and you can usually avoid outbreaks. The good news is that after your first outbreak, subsequent cases aren’t as severe. It’s often the first eruption that’s the worst.
Finding out that you may have a sexually transmitted disease can be difficult. Although genital herpes is incredibly common, there’s still a huge stigma attached to the condition. It’s unlikely that the person who passed on herpes to you meant to do so. After all, HSV can have no symptoms at all for a lot of people.
Don’t be too hard on yourself and focus on the solutions instead. Confide in a partner or friend and try to avoid spreading HSV. You can also speak to a counselor or your doctor if you’re worried or don’t know what to do.
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