Medical research is yet to find a way to completely stop the spread of herpes. There is no known cure for genital herpes, but there are treatments for the outbreaks. Although genital herpes is a lifelong infection, symptoms tend to decrease and outbreaks become less frequent over time.
A typical genital herpes diagnosis is done by a doctor by looking at the sores. But sometimes, but not always, it is difficult to diagnose. There are various methods that help in the diagnosis of genital herpes like:
- A culture of the virus – Swab is collected from the suspected herpes sore. However, a person may still have genital herpes even if the culture does not show the presence of HSV.
- Polymerase chain reaction – This chain reaction is carried out to demonstrate the genetic material of the virus.
- Antibodies –The use of antibodies to the genital virus is helpful in demonstrating the presence of the virus in clinical specimens.
- Blood test – A blood test known as type-specific test is carried out to confirm the presence of an immune response to the herpes virus. This test can diagnose whether a person is infected with HSV-1 or HSV-2.
These tests generally require a few days. The test results along with the location of the sores are helpful for a doctor to diagnose a genital infection. Even those who get tested may not get an accurate diagnosis. This is because the antibodies of the virus may take months to develop in a genital herpes infected person’s body. That is precisely why tests taken soon after infection may give negative results.
There is no known cure for genital herpes, but there are treatments for the outbreaks. These treatments may reduce the severity and duration of the outbreaks. The doctor may prescribe antiviral medicine to treat the symptoms and to help prevent future outbreaks. Even though, there are topical agents that can be applied directly on the lesions, these are generally less effective and are not routinely used. Medications taken orally (through mouth), or in severe cases, intravenous, are more effective.
The antiviral medicines are effective in shortening the initial outbreak of the infection, lower the chance of recurrence, and make any later outbreaks less severe. These are advised as ‘suppressive therapies’ to prevent recurrences for those with more than six outbreaks in a year. Suppressive therapy is reported to have decreased the frequency of genital herpes recurrences by 70-80%. Many patients following this therapy report no symptomatic outbreaks.
The antiviral medicines vary in cost and how often they should be taken. These should be taken for the entire length of time prescribed by the doctor (usually 5-7 days) as the symptoms may get better before the infection is completely treated. The following oral medications are generally used to prevent the genital herpes virus from multiplying and even shorten the length of the eruption.
Acyclovir or Zovirax is an antiviral drug which slows the growth and spread of the genital herpes virus helping the body to fight off the infection. It will not cure herpes, but can lessen the symptoms of the infection. Treatment with acyclovir should be started in the initial stages of genital herpes outbreak when the first symptoms like tingling, burning, and blisters start appearing. This drug also helps in treating other infections caused by herpes viruses like cold sores, shingles and chicken pox.
Acyclovir also decreases the frequency and severity of recurrent infections. It usually comes in the form capsules, tablets, injection, and suspension, powder for injection and ointment (for topical use).
Pregnant women affected with female genital herpes should let the doctor know about their condition. Acyclovir is not harmful to an unborn child, but it may cause complications after birth. It is very important to prevent genital herpes lesions during pregnancy as herpes virus can be passed from an infected mother to the bay during childbirth.
Acyclovir has the tendency to pass into breast milk and this may be harmful for a nursing infant. It is best to avoid acyclovir if breast-feeding a baby. Also, the persons allergic to any drugs and those suffering from kidney disease may need a dosage adjustment or special tests during treatment for genital herpes.
Val acyclovir or Valtrex
Val acyclovir or Valtrex is an antiviral drug which slows the growth and spread of genital virus so that the body can fight off the infection. Similar to acyclovir, it cannot cure herpes, but reduce the symptoms of the infection. When this drug enters the body, it turns into acyclovir, the anti-herpes medicine.
It is available only in the form of capsules and has an upper hand over acyclovir as it has a longer duration of action in comparison. It helps in relieving pain and discomfort and the genital herpes sores heal faster.
Similar to acyclovir, care should be taken about this drug while breast feeding, in cases of drug-allergy and if suffering from a kidney-disease.
Famciclovir (Famvir) is an antiviral drug which helps in fighting against genital herpes infection by blocking the reproduction of the virus that causes genital herpes. It is useful in treating patients with recurring genital herpes who also have HIV infection. It is a ”pro-drug” and is converted to penciclovir, which is active against the viruses.
Famvir has a longer duration of action than acyclovir. The precautions to be remembered while choosing this drug are similar to those for Val acyclovir and Acyclovir. These are available only in the form of tablets.
Since the initial infection with herpes simplex virus type-2 is severe, an antiviral medicine becomes mandatory. These medications significantly reduce pain and decrease the length of time until the genital herpes sores heal. However, treatment of the first infection does not seem to reduce the frequency of recurrent episodes.
The recurring herpes episodes are generally mild and the benefits of anti-viral medications can be fully derived if therapy is started immediately prior to the outbreak or within the first 24 hours of the outbreak. For this reason, the patient is supposed to start treatment as soon as the familiar pre-outbreak tingling sensation occurs or at the very onset of blister formation.
Persons diagnosed with genital herpes virus should take some additional steps in their daily life such as:
- Avoiding excessive heat or sunlight as these tend to make the irritation more uncomfortable.
- Donning comfortable, loose fitting cotton clothing.
- Using cool clothes on the affected area as it soothes the pain.
- Avoiding perfumed or antibacterial soaps, feminine deodorant, or douches.
- Taking aspirin, acetaminophen (Tylenol and others), or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin, Nuprin etc)
Natural therapies, though not supported by scientific evidence, have shown to help reduce the symptoms of genital herpes. Some of the alternative therapies are as follows:
- Placing a cold wet tea bag on the sores as tannic acid can soothe genital tissues. Consuming peppermint tea can also be helpful.
- Red marine alga (antiviral blocker), Colostrums immunoglobulin (anti-microbial for infants), olive leaf (oleuropein-antioxidant boots immune responders) and blue-green alga Spirulina platensis (antiviral agent).
- Micronutrients act as recurrence episode suppressors.
- Beta-mannan promotes healing and Vitamin C is an antiviral nutrient.
- Using a cotton ball that’s dipped in Cornstarch helps in drying the sores.
- Baking soda can also be used to dry the sores and thus decrease itching.
- Even milk can be helpful in overcoming the itching caused by genital herpes sores.
- A diet rich in the amino acid, lysine, may help prevent recurrences. Foods with high lysine levels include most vegetables, legumes, fish, turkey and chicken.
- A bandage may be placed over the sores to protect them and prevent spreading of the virus to other body parts.
Persons affected with genital herpes should avoid any oral-genital contact. Using barriers such as latex condoms during sex may decrease the chances of transmission but since condoms may not cover all infected areas, transmission can still occur.
Immediate treatment, a healthy diet, safe sex practices and the right medications and supplements are needed to manage the disease and combat the discomfort associated with genital herpes.