Medically reviewed by Mary Lucas, RN
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 7/12/2020
Herpes is one of the most common viral infections, with the HSV-1 type of the virus present in more than half of all people aged 50 and under. HSV-2, while less common than HSV-1, is also widespread, with an estimated 11% of people aged 15-49 infected worldwide. Unfortunately, there is currently no cure for herpes, meaning you’ll remain infected for life (or until a long-term cure is discovered) if you currently have the virus.
However, there are a variety of highly effective medications available to treat herpes, meaning an HSV-1 or HSV-2 infection doesn’t need to have a negative impact on your life.
In this guide, we’ll look at why there isn’t a cure for herpes, as well as the issues that currently make development of a cure so challenging. We’ll also cover the treatment options available to control and manage an oral or genital herpes infection.
Unlike other sexually transmitted diseases, such as syphilis or gonorrhea, herpes isn’t caused by bacteria. Instead, herpes is a virus that penetrates specific cells in the body, laying dormant for months or years at a time between outbreaks.
In some people, the herpes virus can develop in the body but remain asymptomatic, meaning they won’t ever experience any outbreaks.
Because herpes is a virus, it’s not possible to “kill” a herpes infection like you could a bacterial infection. Cold sore treatments and ways to help fight the HSV-1 and HSV-2 viruses abound, though, which means herpes doesn't have to be a life-changing event. Antiviral drugs can reduce the risk of spreading the virus and prevent outbreaks, but current medicine can’t completely cure the virus in the way that antibiotics can kill bacteria.
Antiviral medications like valacyclovir are highly effective at treating both oral and genital herpes, meaning people with herpes can live normal, problem-free lives.
As with many other viruses that affect a large percentage of the world population, research is ongoing into potential cures for herpes.
However, there are a variety of challenges that make developing a permanent cure for herpes a difficult process. The first is the fact that scientists still don’t completely understand the mechanism by which the herpes virus activates itself within the body.
For example, even a recent 2016 study of the microRNA expression of patients infected with herpes zoster (shingles) notes that the “specific mechanism of virus reactivation and latency remains unknown.”
Antiviral drugs such as valacyclovir, which is commonly used to treat herpes, work by stopping viral DNA synthesis and halting the spread of the herpes virus. However, eliminating the virus from the body is a completely separate process that requires a larger amount of research.
The second challenge in creating a herpes cure is the incredible amount of time required not only to work out how to cure the virus, but also to prove that a potential cure is safe for use in humans on a mass scale.
An estimated 3.7 billion people worldwide are infected with HSV-1, the most common type of herpes virus. This makes the safety of a herpes cure critically important.
Even if a potential herpes cure is developed in vitro (in an isolated environment, such as in a sample of tissue infected with the virus in a laboratory), it can take years or decades of safety and efficacy testing before a drug is available that’s safe for human use.
This means that even if scientists were to stumble onto a potential cure for herpes tomorrow, it could take years before it’s available in your local pharmacy.
Luckily, progress is being made. Scientists at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine recently conducted a series of studies in monkeys and guinea pigs that shows promising results in producing a vaccine for humans, although human trials are still years away.
As such, it’s best to focus on treating herpes using the currently available options, rather than hoping for a cure to be developed, tested and marketed to the public in the near future.
Google “herpes cure” and you’ll find all kinds of products and home remedies claiming to cure herpes, ranging from miraculous oils to meditation exercises.
Unfortunately, the lack of a real pharmaceutical cure for herpes has resulted in the growth of a small online industry for fake herpes cures. Many of these products are promoted using claims about pharmaceutical industry conspiracies and questionable “scientific” evidence.
The reality is that these products are not effective at curing herpes and none are scientifically proven to provide any lasting benefits. Some natural “cures” may provide mild relief during an outbreak of oral or genital herpes, but none will cure herpes permanently.
As such, any supplement, guide or alternative treatment claiming to permanently cure herpes is best avoided.
Living with herpes doesn’t need to be a stressful or embarrassing experience. Today, there are several antiviral drugs available that control and treat the symptoms of herpes, helping to speed up the healing of herpes lesions and reduce the intensity of outbreaks.
Modern herpes medications can also reduce the frequency of recurrent herpes outbreaks, as well as lower your risk of infecting other people with the virus through oral or sexual contact.
Of these antiviral medications, valacyclovir (Valtrex) is one of the most widely used. Our guide to valacyclovir includes more information about how valacyclovir can be used to treat and manage both oral and genital herpes over the long term.