Misleading: Oral herpes, which is caused by the herpes virus HSV-1, isn’t always sexually transmitted, but infection can occur during sexual intercourse via an oral-to-genital route.
Inadequate support: Clinical data on the effectiveness of herbal products in curing herpes is limited.
FULL CLAIM: Herpes is not a sexually transmitted disease; a commercially available plant product can cure herpes
A claim that herpes isn’t a sexually transmitted disease (STD, also referred to as sexually transmitted infections or STIs for short) and that a commercially available herbal product could cure it circulated on social media in April 2022.
Two viruses are responsible for herpes: herpes simplex 1 and 2 (HSV-1 and HSV-2). While HSV-1 predominantly causes oral herpes, HSV-2 is mostly associated with genital herpes. Herpes is a common infection: the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that 3.7 billion people under 50 worldwide are infected with HSV-1 and 491 million by HSV-2.
Once infected, the infection is lifelong, but the infection is mostly asymptomatic, except for short symptomatic periods called outbreaks.
During these outbreaks, the virus causes painful sores and blisters that usually appear around the mouth (oral herpes) or around the genitalia and anus in the case of genital herpes. The first time they occur, these lesions can last between ten days to four weeks before healing. Subsequent outbreaks are usually shorter and less painful.
The claim that herpes isn’t a STI is inaccurate. HSV-2, responsible for genital herpes, is transmitted during sexual intercourse through genital and anal surfaces and genital herpes, and thus meets the definition of a STI.
HSV-1, responsible for oral herpes, is commonly transmitted through non-sexual routes, as infection can occur through skin and saliva contact, for example during kisses or by sharing food utensils. But HSV-1 can also be sexually transmitted through oral-to-genital contact and cause genital herpes. Therefore, both herpes viruses can be sexually transmitted.
The claim also promoted the sale of herbal products that can allegedly cure herpes. However, the product ingredients are unknown, making it impossible to determine what the active compounds in the product are, and what the evidence is for such a claim. As we explained earlier, herpes infection is lifelong because there is no known cure. However, there are treatments that accelerate the healing of herpes sores and blisters. Most common treatments are the antiviral compounds acyclovir, famciclovir and valacyclovir, which can be applied in the form of a cream.
Clinical results on the effectiveness of herbal remedies in treating herpes are limited. Many plant extracts have only been shown to have antiviral properties in vitro and these results alone cannot be reliably extrapolated to humans[1,2]. This is because in vitro experiments, which take place in test tubes or Petri dishes, don’t reflect the complexity of the human body.
A few clinical trials do exist suggesting that some plants, such as Melissa officinalis (lemon balm)[3,4] or Salvia officinalis (sage) accelerate the healing of herpes lesions. However, these results are limited owing to the size of the trials, less than 200 volunteers each. Other clinical trials have been reported but didn’t provide results or found no effects[1,2].
Overall, there is a lack of reliable evidence for the claim that herbal products can cure herpes. Moreover, the composition of the herbal product promoted in the Facebook post is unknown, making it impossible to verify claims of its effectiveness and also casts its safety into question.
- 1 – Garber et al. (2021) Review of Whole Plant Extracts With Activity Against Herpes Simplex Viruses In Vitro and In Vivo. Journal of evidence based integrative medicine.
- 2 – Alvarez et al. (2020) Current Antivirals and Novel Botanical Molecules Interfering With Herpes Simplex Virus Infection. Frontiers microbiology.
- 3 – Koytchev et al. (1999) Balm mint extract (Lo-701) for topical treatment of recurring herpes labialis. Phytomedicine.
- 4 – Wölbling & Leonhardt (1994) Local therapy of herpes simplex with dried extract from Melissa officinalis. Phytomedicine.
- 5 – Saller et al. (2001) Combined herbal preparation for topical treatment of Herpes labialis. Forsch Komplementarmed Klass Naturheilkd.