How to treat herpes

Herpes is a common sexually transmitted infection that can cause sores and blisters on the body. There is no cure for herpes, but there are treatments that can help to manage the symptoms. Antiviral medication can be used to reduce the severity and duration of symptoms, and condoms can help to prevent the spread of the infection.

Oral herpes often stems from an HSV-1 infection, and it can cause blisters or sores to form on or around the mouth. An HSV-2 infection often causes blisters and sores to form on or around the genitals.

As many as one in eight sexually active Australian adults have genital herpes.

Many people with herpes show no symptoms and you cannot catch it from sharing toilets, bedding and swimming pools, or touching surfaces such as countertops and doorknobs.

How is herpes diagnosed?

Your doctor will take a swab from a blister or sore to check for herpes simplex virus. It is best if the blister is less than four days old.

Read: Time to talk about herpes

Symptoms of genital herpes

Most people infected with genital herpes have no symptoms, but some people can experience:

  • stinging or tingling in the genital area
  • small blisters on the genital area that develop into small painful red sores
  • sores that look like a rash or cracked skin on the genitals
  • difficulty passing urine.

The sores can appear on the parts of the skin that have contact with a partner during sex: the penis in men and the labia, clitoris and vulva in women. It is also possible to have sores in the anus or on the buttocks and inner thighs.

The first episode of infection can also have flu-like symptoms such as:

  • fever
  • headache
  • swollen glands.

After you have been exposed, the virus remains dormant (sleeping) in your body for the rest of your life, which means you can experience recurrent episodes of sores and blisters.

Recurrent episodes usually get milder, shorter and less frequent over time. They are more likely to occur when your immune system is weak, due to illness, tiredness or stress.

How is herpes treated?

There is no cure for herpes. However, it is possible to reduce the symptoms using antiviral medicine. This is most effective when started within 72 hours of the first symptoms.

Acyclovir (Zovirax)

You may have seen Zovirax as a cream to treat cold sores. It’s also available as an oral tablet with a prescription.

This is usually the first treatment for herpes. Doctors mainly prescribe it for genital herpes, but they may prescribe it for cold sores, chickenpox, and shingles, which also result from an infection with the herpes virus.

You should begin the treatment as soon as you display any symptoms and continue using it for as long as the doctor advises.

Read: Older Australians underestimating shingles risk

Famciclovir (Famvir)

Famciclovir (Famvir) is an antiviral medicine for adults and adolescents used to treat outbreaks of genital herpes and to suppress recurrent outbreaks of the condition.

Although this medication does not cure the viral infection, it helps to relieve the symptoms and shorten their duration.

People who have frequent episodes of genital herpes can also take Famvir to help prevent the attacks.

The best results are obtained if the medicine is started as soon as possible after the first symptoms begin to appear.

It’s important to be aware that you can still spread the herpes virus to another person even when taking Famvir.

Valacyclovir (Valtrex)

This is used for the treatment of herpes zoster (shingles) in adult patients who begin therapy within 72 hours of the onset of a rash. It is also used for the treatment of recurrent herpes labialis (cold sores). It can also be used to treat clinical episodes of genital herpes simplex infections and for the prevention of recurrent genital herpes.

Valacyclovir (Valtrex) comes as a tablet and the standard dose is one tablet twice a day. It is only available with a prescription.

Doctors typically prescribe valacyclovir for short-term use, though some people take it for longer.

Read: You’ve probably never heard of EBV, but you’ve likely had it

Things you can try at home

There are a few steps you can try at home to ease herpes symptoms after you have consulted a doctor.

Some things to try to ease discomfort are:

  • gently bathing the area with a warm salt solution (one teaspoon to two cups water, or one cup of salt in a bath)
  • pain medicine, such as paracetamol or ibuprofen
  • local anaesthetic ointment or cream
  • applying ice wrapped in a towel to blisters
  • avoiding triggers such as stress and sunburn
  • urinating while sitting in a warm bath if urination is painful.

It’s also recommended to wear loose-fitting clothing and underwear if genital blisters become painful.

Although they can be more accessible and less costly, home care techniques may not be as effective, especially in people with more severe symptoms or frequent outbreaks. They may also cause side-effects, depending on the treatment.

Do you have any other suggestions? Why not share your thoughts in the comments section below?

Health disclaimer: This article contains general information about health issues and is not advice. For health advice, consult your medical practitioner.

Ellie Baxter
Ellie Baxter
Writer and editor with interests in travel, health, wellbeing and food. Has knowledge of marketing psychology, social media management and is a keen observer and commentator on issues facing older Australians.
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