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Is there a cure for herpes?

In Australia, it’s estimated that a whopping 75% (yes, that’s three in four) of adults carry the HSV-1 virus.

Written by
Joe Cutcliffe
Medically reviewed by
Dr Matthew Vickers
Last updated
April 23, 2024
min read
Is there a cure for herpes?
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Getting a herpes diagnosis is an undeniably shit go.

Maybe you specifically asked for the test after the subject of a recent sexual encounter told you that they’re infected (even without any symptoms). Or perhaps your junk has broken out in sores that DEFINITELY weren’t there before.

Either way, you’re probably wondering “is there a cure for herpes?”, and “is herpes forever?”

Unfortunately, the answer to the former question is essentially “no” and to add insult to injury, the latter “yes”, but that doesn’t mean it’s all bad news for carriers of the common contagion.

First let’s take a look at what exactly herpes entails.

What is herpes?

Herpes is the everyday term used for the Herpes Simplex Virus, or HSV (sadly not the souped up Holden). It’s a highly transmissible viral infection that causes blister-type sores to occur, usually on the skin around the mouth and/or genitals.

It comes in two types: HSV-1 and HSV-2. HSV-1 is more common, and typically causes sores around the mouth and lips (commonly known as cold sores).

HSV-2’s sores are generally more prevalent around the genital and anal areas, though both types can affect both areas.

Essentially, anywhere that has a mucous membrane. This refers to the thin “epithelial” tissue which secretes mucus, and lines most of the body’s cavities and tubular organs including the gut and respiratory passages, and here concerns the anus, mouth and vagina. This tissue is fertile ground for an HSV infection to ensconce itself.

How common is herpes?

In Australia, it’s estimated that a whopping 75 per cent (yes, that’s three in four) of adults carry the HSV-1 virus, and a staggering ten per cent carry the HSV-2 virus.

It’s also noted that more women carry the HSV-2 virus than men do. The reason for this is very simple: it is much easier for a woman to contract herpes from a man during sex than it is for a man to contract it, thanks largely in part to a woman’s vaginal walls being more susceptible to infection than the thicker, more resistant skin on the penis.

Some studies indicate that the rate of infection for HSV-2 amongst women is around double that of men.

Is there a cure for herpes?

In a word, no: herpes does not have a cure. This said, it’s important to note that nobody has ever died from a herpes outbreak.

While both types of HSV can be dangerous to a person whose immune system is suppressed (like somebody with HIV/AIDS), it is not a serious illness in and of itself, and the only noticeable symptoms are usually open sores in the affected area for a week or two.

A small number of HSV patients have reported mild flu-like symptoms during an episode, too, but remember, this is a small percentage of those who know they have the virus, and it is estimated that the majority of people who carry HSV are not aware that they have it.

For those who are aware, it can be monitored and suppressed with the assistance of some pharmaceutical intervention.

How do I treat herpes?

There are treatment options available that work to suppress the virus when it's flaring up (i.e. making sores sprout all over your johnson). This can help in two ways: by reducing the length of time it will take before it subsides and by reducing the risk of transmission to a sexual partner.

While flare-ups are occurring, it is safest to avoid all sexual contact for the week or so symptoms are showing, and at other times use a barrier-type of protection during intercourse (condoms for regular sex, dental dams for oral sex) to avoid the risk of spreading infection.

What else can I do?

There are a few practical ways to manage a flare-up of herpes that will both make the episode more comfortable to live with and also shorten its lifespan. These include:

  • Keeping the affected area dry
  • Avoiding any tight-clothing and synthetic materials that won’t breathe
  • Using anaesthetic cream to manage the immediate pain
  • Washing the affected area with warm, salty water (avoid soap altogether).

At the time, copping a herpes diagnosis feels like the worst luck.

You might feel like you’re the first person ever to come down with it, and the perceived stigma of having it “forever” sucks. It takes time to come to grips with.

But there’s also a great deal of reassurance in the numbers (literally billions of people carry it in some form or another) and the lack of “cure”, as it were, is largely offset by the fact that it can be managed throughout a long and otherwise healthy life without complication or fear of transmission.

As always, it’s important that you take a couple of extra precautions to look after yourself and your sexual partner(s); wear a condom, ensure you’ve sought the advice of a doctor and looked at treatment, and don’t be afraid to be honest about it if you’re worried you might infect another (“Not tonight” is a far less awkward conversation that the alternative and you’ll get brownie points for being open).

And remember that while herpes may be prevalent, and (at least for now) permanent, it is no terminal illness either; the right course of treatment can keep the symptoms repressed, the risk of transmission low and the carrier living a full and healthy life to a ripe old age, without the ongoing discomfort of regular outbreaks, or the ongoing fearful feeling that you’re the only one in the world dealing with it.

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