By Qineng Tan, L.Ac., Ph.D. & Xiaomei Cai, L.Ac. Ph.D.
Cold sores around mouth, blisters on lips? Burning, itching sores around the genital area? Herpes simplex is a skin disorder caused by one of two viral infections: HSV-1 or HSV-2. TCM methods, including acupuncture and herbs, can help clear up a painful herpes outbreak and prevent herpes simplex outbreaks in the future.
Herpes simplex is one of the most common kinds of infectious disease, affecting several billions of people worldwide. It is estimated that about 66% of the world’s population has had a HSV-1 infection at some point in their lives. Herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) is the viral infection that is associated with oral herpes or orolabial herpes–the one that causes sores around the mouth, often referred to as “cold sores” or “fever blisters.” Herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2) is the kind that causes genital herpes. Herpes virus is related to varicella-zoster viruses, the viruses that cause Chickenpox and Shingles.
How do you get herpes? The skin infection caused by herpes simplex spreads from person to person through close contact. HSV-1, or oral herpes, can spread through sharing utensils, toothbrushes, or towels, or by touching one of the mouth sores, or kissing. HSV-2, or genital herpes, is usually spread through sexual contact is therefore considered a sexually transmitted disease (STD). In fact, either one of the two viral infections can cause sores on the mouth or genital area, or even on other parts of the body. If oral herpes, or HSV-1, gets into the eyes, it can cause serious damage, even causing scarring or permanent loss of vision.
A person can pass herpes to another person even if they aren’t having an active outbreak with visible sores. A pregnant woman can pass the herpes virus to her baby during birth, and the virus can also be passed during breastfeeding. Once a person has been infected with HSV-2, the virus stays in the body and can lie dormant, then resurface in periodic recurrent outbreaks.
Initially, herpes skin disorders manifest in the skin cells, causing the red, painful, blister-like sores. After a while, the infection moves deeper, into the nerve cells, where it can lie dormant until something happens to activate it again, like an illness or stressful life event.
Medical treatment for herpes simplex focuses on minimizing the pain of an outbreak of sores and attempting to prevent future outbreaks with antiviral medications. People who have genital herpes must take care to practice safe sex and avoid sex during outbreaks in order to prevent spreading herpes to their partners. People with herpes can suffer from depression brought on by the knowledge that they may have to live with this highly contagious viral infection for the rest of their lives, and with the danger of possibly transmitting herpes simplex to others with whom they are intimate.
Fortunately, TCM herbs and acupuncture offer an alternative medicine option for dealing with herpes simplex. TCM can help with quick healing of the burning sores that signify an outbreak, but can also work on a deeper level to strengthen the immune system so that it can fight the virus better from within.
Top 5 Symptoms of Herpes Simplex
Signs of a herpes simplex infection depend on which type of viral infection you have, and where the infection spreads. Usually, symptoms manifest either around the mouth or genital area, but sometimes the herpes virus can spread to the eyes (herpes keratitis). The most common symptoms of herpes include:
- Itching, burning, tingling around the mouth or genital area
- Painful, fluid-filled blisters or sores around the mouth or genital area
- Flu-like symptoms: fever, body aches, swollen glands
- Trouble urinating, burning sensation when peeing
- Pain in eyes, cloudy vision
Once a person has had their first symptomatic period of a herpes infection, they may have recurrence of symptoms periodically–in some cases, frequently. The majority of people who have been infected with HSV-2 experience another outbreak within a year; some people experience recurrent outbreaks several times a year or as often as once a month.
There are a few other skin conditions that might sometimes be mistaken for herpes simplex. Impetigo is a bacterial infection that can cause red sores to form around the mouth and nose. “Jock itch” is a fungal infection that can cause a red rash in the groin area. Folliculitis is when hair follicles become inflamed and form pimples with pus; this can happen in the facial or genital region due to shaving, but it can also be related to herpes, if the viral infection causes irritation and blockages in the hair follicles. Molluscum contagiosum is another viral skin infection that causes raised lesions to form; however, they are generally painless and flesh-colored, not similar to herpes lesions. Bacterial vaginosis, a common bacterial infection which can cause a burning sensation in the vagina, may increase a woman’s chances of getting herpes and other STDs.
What Triggers a Herpes Outbreak?
The herpes virus is similar to the varicella virus (chickenpox) in that it stays in the body long after the initial infection, and can flare up and cause trouble later on. The varicella virus can lie dormant for many years, and then emerge as a case of Shingles late in life, causing a very painful rash.
Herpes can cause rare or frequent outbreaks, depending on the severity of the initial infection, how or if it was treated, and what sort of care a person takes to prevent recurrences. A person who has experienced recurrent outbreaks may become aware of early signs that show up a few days before sores actually break out on the skin, such as tingling or shooting pain in the genital area or around the hips or legs.
The things that can trigger a herpes simplex outbreaks include:
- Illness, fever
- Suppression or weakness of the immune system
- Exposure to sunlight, changes of the season or temperature
- Menstrual period, hormonal changes
- Prolonged period of stress, emotional stress
- Surgery, trauma
Medical Treatment for Herpes Simplex
The typical treatment for herpes simplex HSV-1 and HSV-2 includes the use of antiviral medications such as acyclovir (Zovirax), famciclovir (Famvir) and valacyclovir (Valtrex). These medications may be taken intermittently, to help treat outbreaks when they occur, or, in some cases, may be recommended for daily usage to help prevent outbreaks from occurring. For some people, these medications help to reduce the frequency of outbreaks, and there is some evidence that they may help prevent a person’s sexual partner from being infected. However, these antiviral medications do not help everyone who has herpes simplex. They can only reduce the spread of the virus in the body; they do not eliminate it completely. Some people may become allergic or resistant to the drugs. Some people experience side effects, including potentially serious kidney problems or unusual bleeding.
TCM treatment with herbs and acupuncture can help to reduce the severity of herpes outbreaks and prevent recurrence, without any negative side effects.
Can Acupuncture Help Herpes?
From the TCM point of view, the redness and burning of the blister-like rash that accompanies viral infections like herpes and varicella is caused by heat and dampness. Clearing heat and damp from the liver and gallbladder will usually be one of the primary goals of acupuncture treatment and herbal supplementation, as this will help to quickly cool down an outbreak of the painful sores. Maintaining the health and balance of the liver system long-term will help to prevent future outbreaks.
TCM also factors in emotional well-being when considering each individual’s presentation of a disease. The flare up of herpes simplex viral infection is associated with stress and negative emotions, especially anger. Anger is connected to the Liver and Gallbladder, and also to the eyes, which is why sometimes the herpes skin disorder will manifest in the eyes. Learning lifestyle behaviors and dietary choices that will help to balance the emotions and reduce excess heat in the body will also help reduce the occurrence of herpes flare ups.
Some herbal formulations work well to heal sores related to herpes outbreak. There are also specific Chinese herbs that function as “antivirals.” These herbs can help control the virus in the body, which, when combined with treatment and herbs that strengthen the immune system, can be effective at reducing the risk of recurrent outbreaks of herpes.
Acupuncture Near Me for Herpes Simplex
While herpes simplex is often considered a disease one has to “learn to live with,” it is not necessary to suffer the pain and emotional burden of herpes simplex infection without relief. Alternative medicine for herpes in the form of acupuncture and herbs offers a holistic treatment option that can help relieve the physical symptoms of recurrent herpes outbreaks as well as associated mental and emotional struggles with shame, anxiety, depression, and relationship concerns. Boosting the immune system, strengthening the Qi and organ systems, reducing heat through proper nutrition, and relieving stress can all work to help people with herpes live free of the fear of the next outbreak.
*This article is for education from the perspective of Traditional Chinese Medicine only. The education provided by this article is not approved by FDA to diagnose, prevent, treat and cure human diseases. It should not stop you from consulting with your physician for your medical conditions. Traditional Chinese Medicine is based on Qi, which is an invisible force that usually cannot be observed by modern science. Because science focuses on testing ideas about the natural world with evidence obtained through observation, these aspects of acupuncture can’t be studied by science. Therefore acupuncture and Chinese herbs are often not supported by double-blind, randomized trials, and they are considered alternative medicine therapies in the United States.