Treatment for Genital Herpes
There are three antiviral medications that are FDA-approved for the treatment of genital herpes:
- Acyclovir: The oldest antiviral medication for herpes is acyclovir. It has been available since 1982 in a topical form (as an ointment) and sold since 1985 in pill form. Acyclovir has been shown to be safe in persons who have used it continuously (every day) for as long as 10 years.
- Valacyclovir: A newer drug, valacyclovir, actually uses acyclovir as its active ingredient. This medication delivers acyclovir more efficiently so that the body absorbs much of the drug, which has the advantage of taking the medication fewer times during the day.
- Famciclovir: Famciclovir uses penciclovir as its active ingredient to stop HSV from replicating. Like valacyclovir, it is well absorbed, persists for a longer time in the body, and can be taken less frequently than acyclovir.
Antiviral medication is commonly prescribed for patients having a first episode of genital herpes, but they can be used for recurrent episodes as well. There are two kinds of treatment regimens: episodic therapy and suppressive therapy.
In this approach, a person begins taking medication at the first sign of an outbreak (or ideally at first signs of prodrome) and continues taking medication for several days, in order to speed healing or even prevent an outbreak from fully occurring. All three of the antiviral treatments mentioned above have been proven to help shorten the amount of time that a person may experience symptoms of herpes. However, keep in mind that results may vary from person to person.
Many people feel the advantages of using medication for recurrent episodes are marginal compared with use in a primary episode. But for others, episodic therapy offers a useful way to manage outbreaks by cutting the length of an outbreak by a day or two, on average. The benefits may be greater for those whose outbreaks tend to last longer.
Also, episodic therapy has its best results when treatment begins at the very first sign of prodrome. If lesions are already present, therapy may offer little benefit. Because the medications differ in their absorption rate and duration of effectiveness, dosages vary with episodic therapy treatment ranging from one to five pills every day for three to five days during an outbreak.
People with genital herpes who want to eliminate (suppress) outbreaks can take antiviral medication daily to hold HSV in check so that it’s less likely to flare up and cause symptoms. For individuals who have frequent recurrences (six or more per year), studies have shown that suppressive therapy can reduce the number of outbreaks by at least 75% while the medication is being taken. Also, for some, taking an antiviral on a daily basis can prevent outbreaks altogether.
While antivirals can be successful in controlling herpes symptoms, researchers also have turned their attention to the important issue of antiviral therapy and asymptomatic shedding. Does suppressive therapy lower the risk of unrecognized herpes reactivation as well as curb recognized outbreaks? One study addressing this question found that women on suppressive acyclovir (400 mg, twice daily) had a 94% reduction in subclinical shedding while taking daily therapy. This type of study has also been done with famciclovir and valacyclovir, with similar reductions seen in both men and women.
Suppressive therapy has been studied in thousands of patients and it appears to be both safe and effective. Because the medications differ in their absorption rate and duration of effectiveness, dosages vary with suppressive therapy treatment ranging from one to two pills every day.
Treatment for Oral Herpes
The antiviral medications available in pill form (acyclovir, valacyclovir, famciclovir) have been specifically developed for the treatment of genital herpes. However, it is not uncommon for healthcare providers to prescribe the antiviral drugs to those who have frequent or severe outbreaks of oral herpes.
A recent study found valacyclovir to be effective for treating oral herpes in a one-day treatment of 2 grams taken at the first sign of a cold sore, and then again about 12 hours later.
There are two topical antiviral medications prescribed for the treatment of oral HSV symptoms: acyclovir ointment and penciclovir cream. Both work to speed up the healing process and reduce the viral activity. These topical drugs are put directly on the lesions themselves, but can also be used at the onset of prodrome.
Other topical treatments for oral herpes are available over-the-counter (OTC), but are not antiviral compounds like acyclovir and penciclovir. Some also contain ingredients that numb the area and induce temporary relief from the discomfort of an outbreak. Unfortunately, some OTC treatments may actually delay the healing time of symptoms because they can further irritate the area with repeated applications. There is only one OTC FDA-approved cream, called Abreva®, which has been clinically proven to help speed the healing process.
Over-the-counter creams and/or ointments are not recommended for genital herpes, since they can interfere with the healing process in a number of ways, causing genital outbreaks to last longer. Keeping the area clean and as dry as possible and allowing the area to get air can help to speed the healing process.
Many people find that outbreaks tend to lessen in severity and frequency with time. What triggers an outbreak is highly individual, but with time, many people learn to recognize, and sometimes avoid, factors that seem to reactivate HSV in their own bodies. For example, illness, poor diet, emotional or physical stress, friction in the genital area, prolonged exposure to ultraviolet light (commonly for oral herpes, such as a beach trip or skiing weekend), surgical trauma, or steroidal medication (such as asthma treatment) may trigger a herpes outbreak.
The frequency of outbreaks can often be managed through effective stress management, and getting adequate rest, nutrition, and exercise.
People often ask about an amino acid by the name of lysine (L-lysine), because of Internet claims or claims from other people that it helps control outbreaks. While some studies have suggested that lysine supplements can reduce the frequency of recurrences or healing time, other trials have been unable to replicate those results. Therefore, there is not sufficient information to discern how effective it may be, in addition to what the effective dosages or frequency of L-lysine may be.
Lysine can be found with other nutrients and supplements at your local grocery or drug store, but people should only take the recommended dosage if it is taken and always check with their health care provider first before starting any new medication or supplement. Megadoses of lysine may throw other amino acids out of balance and interfere with the absorption of other nutrients such as vitamins and minerals.
In regard to possible foods to avoid, some people feel that foods that contain high amounts of the amino acid arginine may cause herpes outbreaks. Arginine is found in numerous foods that are eaten on a regular basis, so we don’t encourage not eating foods simply because they contain arginine. However, an individual may want to consider adjusting their diet if they are having frequent outbreaks and believes food is a contributing factor. Again, while some individuals believe arginine can trigger outbreaks, there is no clinical evidence to support these claims.
Understanding Herpes with H. Hunter Handsfield, MD
Herpes expert H. Hunter Handsfield, MD, explains the basics about genital herpes, including the difference between genital HSV-1 and HSV-2 infection, testing options and the importance of knowing virus type, and the three-prong strategy for prevention. See more herpes videos at sexualhealthTV.com.
Have a question about herpes you’d like Dr. Handsfield or our other experts to answer? Visit our Ask the Experts page to learn how.