THE DETAILS: The analysis, reprinted from the newly printed second edition of the book Clinical Botanical Medicine (Mary Ann Liebert, Inc., 2009), states that creams containing mint, particularly Melissa officinalis (lemon balm), offer a safe, natural, and cheap alternative to pharmaceutical drugs for treating cold sores. Other studies found that prolonged use can lengthen the gap between outbreaks. Another clinical trial found that a cream containing a combination of Salvia officinalis (sage) leaf and Rheum palmatum (Chinese rhubarb) root was nearly as effective as the prescription drug acyclovir, with no side effects. The authors say that extracts of mint, basil, peppermint, heal all (Prunella vulgaris), rosemary, sage, and thyme could also fight cold sores, while tannin-rich herbs and tea tree oil may help prevent transmission.
The effects of herbal preparations on genital herpes are not as well documented. Ointments containing propolis, a mixture of compounds harvested by bees from the resin of willow trees, have shown promise in treating genital herpes lesions more effectively than the drug acyclovir, but the authors say more research is needed in this area.
WHAT IT MEANS: Not everyone needs a prescription to deal with herpes. And while it’s important to note that not all herbs and herbal combinations are safe, research has backed the use of certain herbs with antiviral properties for treatment of herpes. Ask your doctor before you start any treatment to make sure it won’t cause a problem when used with other medications you are currently taking.
Here are some nonpharmaceutical options for combating a herpes outbreak:
• Look for the right ingredients. If you’re looking for cream containing herpes-fighting herbs, look on the ingredients label for lemon balm, or Chinese rhubarb and sage, and follow instructions on the product label. You may have to seek out a natural food store to find what you’re looking for.
• Consider a tincture. The authors of the review noted the success they have using tinctures—herbal preparations made with alcohol—to treat herpes outbreaks, too. “We have generally found that creams are acceptable and can be effective for relieving herpes outbreaks, but that topical application of tinctures can be even more immediately helpful,” write the study authors. “This is because ethanol has a drying effect that quickly reduces pain.” The authors stress that multiple applications throughout the day is key to knocking the virus down, noting that oils and ointments are not as effective as tinctures or creams. You may want to reserve tinctures for evening use—they can stain the skin for several hours.
• Zap stress. Stress can lead to outbreaks, so it’s important to get at least seven hours of sleep (not enough sleep can increase the production of the stress hormone cortisol), and if you’re feeling anxious, exercise during the day, and write down what’s bothering you before you go to bed.
• Boost your immunity. Try this herbal tonic to boost your immune system’s overall defenses: Toss 1 ounce each of dried echinacea and burdock root into a quart jar and fill it to the top with boiling water. Let the herbs steep for 4 to 8 hours, and then strain the liquid. To treat an outbreak, aim to drink 4 cups a day until the blisters fade away. As a preventative action, drink ½ cup two to four times a day for up to 3 months. After that, take a 3-day break after each 27-day stretch.