Herpes is a common name for infections caused by the herpes simplex virus. Herpes usually results in fluid-filled blisters and weeping, open sores on the mouth, nose, genitals or buttocks. However, as the American Academy of Dermatology notes, herpes can actually occur almost anywhere on the skin. There is no cure for herpes, so symptoms may reappear periodically. Topical vitamin E may reduce the duration or severity of herpes outbreaks. Patients who intend to use it for this purpose should consult their physicians.
Vitamin E occurs naturally in foods such as whole grains, egg yolks, nuts, seeds, vegetable oils, margarine, fortified cereals and leafy, green vegetables. People can also purchase vitamin E supplements in two forms: gelatin capsules intended primarily for oral use and bottles of oil intended for topical use. There is no evidence that one form is more effective than another for herpes outbreaks. People with herpes can puncture the gelatin capsules and apply the contents to affected areas.
Vitamin E occurs in eight different chemical forms: alpha-tocopherol, beta-tocopherol, gamma-tocopherol, delta-tocopherol, alpha-tocotrienol-, beta-tocotrienol, gamma-tocotrienol and delta-tocotrienol. Natural vitamin E contains varying quantities of all eight forms. Synthetic vitamin E usually contains just one, alpha-tocopherol. Natural vitamin E is twice as active as synthetic vitamin E, according to the Linus Pauling Institute. Sometimes synthetic vitamin E is sold as "alpha-tocopheryl" instead of tocopherol because tocopheryl lasts longer on shelves. However, patients who plan to use synthetic vitamin E for herpes should choose the latter because skin utilizes tocopheryl very slowly.
In the December 2005 edition of "Alternative Medicine Reviews," nutritional medicine specialist Alan R. Gaby, M.D. discusses three studies on topical vitamin E and herpes. In two of the studies described by Gaby, patients applied cotton saturated with vitamin E oil to clean, dry cold sores for 15 minutes. Some patients did this just once, while others — especially those with large or multiple cold sores — did it up to three times per day for three days. These studies focused on vitamin E for cold sore discomfort, not healing. In the third, largest study, patients punctured a softgel and applied the contents every four hours during waking hours until the cold sores healed. These patients seemed to experience pain relief and increased healing.
The major risk of using topical vitamin E for herpes is that it will have no effect. Gaby describes all three studies on topical vitamin E and herpes as observational because none of them included a comparison group of patients who used no treatment at all, or patients who used oil without vitamin E. It's possible that vitamin E actually has no effects and what the study participants experienced was spontaneous healing. It's also possible that the effects attributed to vitamin E actually reflect the skin-protecting properties of oil, not vitamin E itself. Vitamin E oil may cause skin irritation. Patients who experience this should discontinue use and see a doctor if irritation persists after 72 hours.
Topical vitamin E does not replace conventional medical treatments for herpes sores or any other condition. People who experience severe, frequent or long-lasting — longer than two weeks — herpes outbreaks should see a doctor. It's important to wash your hands before and after handling herpes blisters and sores. Washing before handling protects against irritation and secondary infection from dirt and bacteria on your hands. Washing after handling also protects against spreading the infection to other people or new sites on the infected person's own body.