Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 7/12/2020
Herpes is a very common virus, affecting around two in every three people under 50 years of age with HSV-1, and 11% of the same age group as HSV-2. Outbreaks of herpes, whether oral or genital, are the result of the virus going from dormant to active in your body. A variety of factors can trigger a herpes outbreak, from a temporary dip in your immune system to sunlight or excessive amounts of stress.
One factor that’s of particular interest is food. From avoiding sugar-rich foods to reducing salt and fat intake, a variety of supposedly “herpes-fighting” diets and eating tips have been shared between people over the years. In this guide, we’ll take a look at the impact certain foods can have on HSV-1 and HSV-2. We’ll also cover foods to avoid with herpes if you’re currently experiencing an outbreak.
Herpes outbreaks usually occur after a “trigger” behavior causes the virus to go from dormant to active.
There’s no cure for herpes, meaning that once you’re infected, the virus will remain in your body even if it isn’t active. Between outbreaks, herpes lives in the nerve cells of the jaw (oral herpes) or the spine (genital herpes).
Common herpes triggers include sunlight, hormonal changes, a weakened immune system and traumatic events such as injury or surgery.
As a general rule, foods are unlikely to trigger a herpes outbreak. However, some foods could potentially increase your risk of experiencing an outbreak if they have negative effects on your immune system.
On the other hand, foods that strengthen your immune system -- such as vegetables, fruits and other natural foods rich in vitamins -- may potentially reduce your risk of experiencing outbreaks.
While you can’t completely prevent outbreaks by switching to a specific diet, any diet that’s rich in vitamins, minerals and other healthy nutrients that strengthen your immune system can be a valuable asset when it comes to wellbeing.
If you have symptomatic oral or genital herpes, you’ll likely experience outbreaks on occasion even with a flawless diet.
During a herpes outbreak, the best way to fight the virus and speed up healing is through the use of an antiviral medication such as valacyclovir. This is a prescription medication that you’ll need to talk about with your doctor.
While there’s no proof that food can worsen or improve a herpes outbreak, many people with herpes report improvements after avoiding certain foods.
Avoiding foods with a herpes outbreak is tough, but generally, stay away from anything spicy, salty or oily, as these foods are most likely to irritate the lips and gums. Acidic drinks, like fruit juices, are also best avoided if you have open cold sores that could potentially become irritated.
Studies also show that arginine, an amino acid found in a variety of foods, can play a role in the spread of viruses such as herpes. Arginine has viral growth properties, meaning it may increase the rate at which viruses like HSV-1 and HSV-2 multiply in the body.
As such, it’s best stay away from foods high in arginine like turkey breast, pork loin, chicken breast, nuts (peanuts in particular), pumpkin seeds, chickpeas, soybeans, dairy products and lentils during an outbreak of herpes.
Instead, stick to a simple, healthy diet that gives you a complete supply of vitamins, minerals and essential nutrients without supply excessive amounts of arginine.
Lysine, on the other hand, is a naturally occurring amino acid produced in the body whose intake has been linked to hindering the activities of arginine in the body. Essentially, lysine good; arginine bad.
So, what foods are high in lysine and low in arginine? There are plenty:
Cheese, yogurt and other dairy products.
Fruits like apples, pears and apricots.
Most poultry that isn't turkey breast.
You can also opt for a daily lysine supplement.
Beyond avoiding salty and spicy foods, and foods high in arginine, there are several other things you can do to speed up the rate at which your body heals during a herpes outbreak:
If you don’t get enough vitamins and minerals through your diet, consider taking a multivitamin to boost your immune system and reduce the frequency of outbreaks in the future.
If you sleep for less than 7-8 hours per night, try going to bed earlier to give your mind and body more time to rest, relax and recover.
Avoid cigarettes and other tobacco smoking products, all of which can irritate the lips and mouth. If you smoke cigarettes, consider switching to an alternative during herpes outbreaks.
Avoid consuming excessive amounts of alcohol. Alcohol can interfere with some of the medications used to treat herpes. Drinking, even in moderate amounts, can also have negative effects on your immune system and ability to recovery from an outbreak.
While diet does play a role in the development and management of herpes outbreaks, it’s rarely the primary factor responsible for causing or healing an outbreak.
If you have symptomatic herpes, eating unhealthy foods may increase your risk of experiencing outbreaks. However, this does not mean that you can treat herpes or avoid outbreaks by simply making a few changes to your diet.
The safest, most effective way to avoid herpes outbreaks, lower your risk of spreading the virus and increase the rate at which your body heals is through the use of antiviral herpes medication such as valacyclovir.
These medications should be your first line of defense against herpes. If you’re concerned that you might have herpes, or know you have the virus and need help dealing with outbreaks, the best approach is to talk to your doctor about the use of medication.
Once you’ve started using antiviral medication, you can then look at your diet and other factors that could contribute to or prevent further herpes outbreaks.