If you have recently been diagnosed with genital herpes, chances are you have experienced a painful outbreak of lesions in your genital area that took two to four weeks to heal. The good news is that subsequent outbreaks are rarely as severe as the first and usually heal much more quickly, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG).
During the first year, you might experience outbreaks often, sometimes every few weeks. The average number of outbreaks for someone with HSV-2 is four to five per year, and for someone with HSV-1, it is usually one per year, according to the American Sexual Health Association (ASHA). As time goes on, your outbreaks will probably come less often.
While there isn’t a cure for herpes, there are steps you can take to prevent or reduce the frequency and severity of an outbreak:
1. Talk to your doctor about antiviral medications
There are two types of antiviral medications available to treat herpes. One is taken every day to help suppress outbreaks. The other is episodic; you take it at the first sign of an outbreak to help reduce the duration and severity. Discuss with your doctor how often you are experiencing outbreaks and your symptoms. Together you can decide which, if any, medication is best for you.
2. Know your triggers
Everyone experiences herpes differently, and your triggers might not be the same as someone else’s. Keep track of what is going on in your life to discern what situations might trigger your outbreaks. You can then work to avoid the triggers or treat the herpes as soon as an outbreak comes on. Some common triggers include infections, hormones, physical or emotional stress, exposure to UV light, not eating right, and certain medications, according to ASHA.
3. Recognize the early symptoms
You might not be able to stop an outbreak, but you might be able to reduce the severity and length of it. Many people have warning signs of an outbreak, including itching, tingling, genital pain, or shooting pain in the legs, hips, or buttocks, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). These signs can occur hours or days before the outbreak, so knowing them gives you the chance to treat the outbreak before it happens.
4. Practice daily stress management
Emotional stress is a common trigger for herpes outbreaks. Using relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, yoga, or mindfulness meditation, can help lower your overall stress levels and make it easier for you to cope with stressful situations.
5. Take care of your body
Eating right, getting enough sleep, consuming alcohol only in moderation, not smoking, and caring for any physical problems promptly helps keep your whole body healthy. Because illness and infections can be a trigger for herpes outbreaks, it is important to take care of yourself.
6. Use lubricants during intercourse
The friction from intercourse may be a trigger for some people. Using lubricants can help reduce the friction. Make sure the lubricant is water-based.
7. Talk to your doctor before using herbal methods or supplements
There are a few herbal methods and supplements that have shown some success in treating herpes outbreaks. For example, some studies have shown the amino acid lysine is helpful for some people with herpes, according to ASHA, but other studies have not been able to produce the same results. Also, some herbal treatments and supplements can have side effects or interfere with other medications. Talk with your doctor about whether these methods might work for you.
8. Pay attention to what you eat
ASHA reports that some people believe foods containing the amino acid arginine, such as legumes and whole grains, can contribute to outbreaks. A few older studies, conducted in 1981 and 1987, showed a possible connection, but ASHA states there is no clinical evidence to support these studies. However, because triggers may vary based on the individual, keep track of the foods you eat to determine if there is a connection.
9. Know how to handle outbreaks when they do happen
If you notice the early warning signs of an outbreak or you notice lesions, take immediate steps to lessen the severity. Wear cotton underwear, avoid using ointments, and take episodic medication if prescribed.
10. Prevent the spread of herpes
If you have herpes, tell your partner. Talk about what it is and what you and your partner need to know and do to protect themselves. Avoid skin-to-skin contact during outbreaks and refrain from all sexual activity during these times. In between outbreaks, you should still use a condom because there is still the potential of spreading the virus.
This is an update of an article originally written by HealthCentral contributor Penelope James.
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Eileen Bailey is a freelance health writer. She is the author of What Went Right: Reframe Your Thinking for a Happier Now, Idiot’s Guide to Adult ADHD, Idiot’s Guide to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Essential Guide to Overcoming Obsessive Love, and Essential Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome. She can be found on Twitter @eileenmbailey and on Facebook at eileenmbailey.