Herpes can affect either the genitals or the mouth area. In each case the symptoms are similar: red patches that itch or tingle, followed a day or two of blisters that last a few days and then break open. The open lesions left following the blisters can be painful or itchy. Outbreaks may recur from time to time—anywhere from once every few weeks to once a decade or so—with symptom-free periods in between. Herpes is not curable, so your best hope is to keep itchiness and other symptoms under control. Fortunately, there are many options.
The most commonly used medications for herpes—either oral or genital—are acyclovir, famcyclovir and valacyclovir, available by prescription only. All can be used for either episodic therapy or suppressive therapy. Episodic means the drug is taken only at the onset of an outbreak to relieve itching and other symptoms and to lessen the duration of the outbreak. Suppressive means the pill is taken every day in a low dose in hopes of preventing outbreaks and their associated itching and pain.
Herpes is a virus and it is sensitive to the actions of the immune system. You can minimize symptoms and the frequency of outbreaks by keeping yours in tip-top shape. Maintaining a healthy diet, replete with vegetables and fruit, and faithfully following an exercise regimen will help your body keep herpes in its latent state. A multivitamin taken daily may be of use, too. Avoiding known outbreak triggers, including fatigue, stress, large amounts of alcohol and, in the case of oral herpes, too much sunlight on the lips. Another tip: Keep herpes sores clean, and try to avoid secondary bacterial infection.
Only one over-the-counter product is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for treatment of herpes. It's a cream called Abreva, and it's designed to hasten the healing of oral herpes. As of 2009, a 0.07 oz. tube of it sells for $17.99 at the drugstore chain Walgreens. Other products are also marketed for relief of itching and other herpes symptoms, but they do not have rigorous scientific evidence showing that they work. They may offer a soothing effect, but some can be irritating to the skin with repeated use.
Herbal health care providers offer a wide array of treatment suggestions for people dealing with the itching that accompanies genital or oral herpes. The products can generally be found in local health food stores, drugstores and supermarkets or can be ordered online at sites like TheHerbsPlace.com. Lemon oil applied to the skin is often mentioned for herpes treatment because of its antiviral qualities. Also popular is lysine, touted for its antiviral properties. Other herbal or supplemental agents receiving frequent mention for relieving herpes itchiness are red marine algae, topical St. John's wort, aloe vera gel and oral echinacea.
For thousands of years the Chinese have used acupuncture for a variety of indications, including relief of symptoms such as pain and itching. The most traditional practitioners believe the tiny needle sticks of acupuncture influence the body's qi energy force. Qi is not a concept that exists in western medicine, but acupuncture has mainstream scientific support for many uses nonetheless. Scientists believe acupuncture may actually act on the body's endorphins to reduce discomfort. Acupuncture performed by a skilled acupuncturist, with needles being placed in meridian (perhaps far from your herpes outbreak), may provide significant relief for the itching and other symptoms caused by herpes.