By Marguerite Arnold

Herpes is a diagnosis people wish to avoid, but what exactly does this condition involve? Many are aware that cold sores are also herpes, but how do they differ from genital herpes? And what are the implications on one’s health? Here we look into the different types of herpes simplex virus, their symptoms, and existing treatments. In doing so, we can then consider the impact cannabis may have on herpes—for better or for worse.

What Is Herpes Simplex?

There are two types of herpes simplex virus: type one and type two. These are known as HSV-1 and HSV-2, respectively, but more on the distinction shortly.

HSV-1 and HSV-2 are responsible for cases of oral and genital herpes—with the oral variety more commonly known as cold sores. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), 3.7 billion people[1] under the age of 50 (67% of the global population) have the HSV-1 infection, with 13% having HSV-2.

Some staggering numbers, but in most cases, the infections are asymptomatic. But what’s the difference between the two varieties?

  • HSV-1 and HSV-2

HSV-1 and HSV-2 are similar, but exhibit some important differences.

HSV-1 is by far the more common and, thankfully, milder iteration of the herpes simplex virus. Most people become infected some time during childhood, and find that the virus presents few, if any, symptoms. If symptoms do occur, they often take the form of cold sores when the infection is oral, and slight ulcers when the infection is genital. With HSV-1, almost all cases are oral, and recur rarely, posing few issues.

HSV-2 is less common, and can be much more severe. However, the majority of HSV-2 infections actually remain asymptomatic, but can nevertheless spread. Almost all HSV-2 cases are genital. The bad news is, the initial outbreak(s) can be severe and painful, and the infection is lifelong. The good news is, the recurrence and severity of outbreaks will recede with time.

How Herpes Spreads

With both genital and oral herpes, the vast majority of transmission happens via skin-to-skin contact. Kissing, sex, or even drinking from the same vessels can spread herpes. But there are a few things we can do to dramatically reduce the likelihood of spreading/catching it.

First and foremost, while infected people are always potential vectors of these viruses, they are far more infectious when they are actually symptomatic; that is, when they have cold sores or genital ulcers. So if you have these symptoms, stay off others for a while!

Cannabis and Herpes: Can It Help?

With HSV-1, that’s about all you can reasonably do in terms of avoiding it. Given that most people have it—and you most likely do too—avoiding kissing anyone your whole life is probably not a viable, nor a worthwhile, solution to avoiding herpes. HSV-2 is a slightly different matter. While not as infectious, the physical symptoms tend to be worse, and come with psychological stress as well.

HSV-2 is spread almost exclusively via sexual contact, and most carriers won’t actually know they’ve got it. Wearing a condom reduces the likelihood of catching it, but doesn’t remove it entirely. So, first off, if you know you have it, be honest, even if you’re asymptomatic. Second, it’s worth being aware that women are about twice as susceptible to catching HSV-2 compared to men.

Finally, both types can take the form of neonatal herpes, where the infant becomes infected during birth. While occurrences of this are very low, about 10 in every 100,000 births, it can be a severe and life-altering infection, causing lasting disability. In most cases, having herpes does not in itself present much of a danger, as infectiousness reduces dramatically over time. Babies are at greatest risk in instances where the mother has herself become infected during the pregnancy and the infection is at its most virulent.

  • Herpes Symptoms

The symptoms of herpes, when they do occur, tend to be unpleasant and painful. Each version of the virus exhibits slightly different symptoms.

HSV-1 Symptoms

HSV-1 symptoms are more straightforward, and almost always located around the mouth. They include:

• Cold sores
• Ulcers in the mouth
• Itching and tingling in and around mouth
• Genital/anal ulcers and blisters (rare)

HSV-2 Symptoms

The symptoms of HSV-2 can vary a little more, and tend to be more severe. They include:

• Genital or anal blisters/ulcers
• Fever, body aches, swollen lymph nodes (with new infections)
• Tingling or shooting pains in legs, hips, and buttocks (before the onset of new blisters/ulcers)

  • Herpes Treatments

Existing treatments for herpes are few, and loaded with side effects. Moreover, these treatments do not cure the infection, but rather deal with the symptoms. Antivirals, such as acyclovir, famciclovir, and valacyclovir, are most commonly prescribed to fight either form of the virus, though only in very few cases is HSV-1 treated with drugs.

Genital herpes, on the other hand, may well be treated with drugs, especially during the initial stages of the infection. Again, these drugs are no cure, and may come with significant side effects, including:

Headaches Dizziness
Nausea Sensitivity to light
Vomiting Diarrhoea

Cannabis and Herpes

There is much talk of determining the potential of cannabis in relation to herpes. This is largely due to a few pieces of research beginning in the 1980s, which have been inflated to suggest that cannabis may be of great help. However, there is also a significant body of research that suggests cannabis may in fact have a negative impact on the symptoms of herpes. Below we investigate the findings at present.


The initial piece of research that caused people to draw a link between cannabis and herpes was conducted in 1980. Researchers claimed that both HSV-1 and HSV-2 were unable to replicate[2] in human cell monolayer cultures when THC was added 8 hours before, at the time of, or 8 hours after infection. In 1991, similar results[3] were found. While both studies indicate that THC may have an effect on the herpes virus, both took place in vitro (outside the human body), under very specific conditions.

Other, in vivo studies (on animals) suggest that THC may not be that helpful when it comes to herpes. A 1986 study[4] tested THC in a model of HSV-2 in guinea pigs. Guinea pigs were chosen as they seem to exhibit a similar response to HSV-2 as humans do. The results were not promising. It was observed that the higher the dose of THC received by the guinea pigs, the worse herpes became compared to the control group—it was even fatal for some. A year prior, in 1985, a similar study involving mice found more or less the same results[5].

More broadly, and more recently, a 2010 paper investigated the effects of cannabinoids[6] on many different viral infections, including HSV-1. It found that with a few types of persistent viral infections, cannabinoids showed some potential. With all others, though, it appeared that cannabinoids actually decreased the body’s ability to cope with infections. HSV-1 was among the latter group.


To date, there appear to be no specific studies looking into the relationship between CBD and herpes. However, a 2020 paper[7] looked at CBD’s relationship to viral infections more generally. Drawing on research papers and anecdotal evidence found on the internet, it concluded that though there may be some relationship, evidence is still severely lacking and most claims are unsubstantiated. As such, it highlights the need to investigate whether CBD could have any effect on viral infections.

Should You Use Cannabis for Herpes?

As it stands, there is no reason to believe that cannabis is a viable course of treatment for herpes. It’s probably best to stick to more proven remedies—time being the best among them. The last thing you want to do is make the condition worse!

With that said, it is far too early to say with confidence that cannabis presents no potential either. The current body of research on cannabis and herpes has yet to reach the domain of human study, and thus very little can be concluded one way or the other.

Will Herpes Go Away?

Neither virus will leave your body. HSV-1 will recede, often with very few symptoms in the first place. From then on, you will be its host, and you’ll likely know nothing (or little) more about it. Other than using a little sense if you’re actually exhibiting symptoms, there’s little you can do if you have HSV-1.

HSV-2, on the other hand, can be more problematic in the long term, but there are things you can do. Symptoms tend to resurge when your immune system becomes suppressed. So living a generally healthy lifestyle is the single best way to keep herpes at bay. Exercise, a healthy diet, a good sleeping pattern; all of these things will keep your immune system strong and herpes infections suppressed, reducing your symptoms and infectiousness. And in time, the virus will lose power anyway. But as always, prevention is the best cure!

External Resources:
  1. Herpes simplex virus
  2. The Effect of Δ-9-Tetrahydrocannabinol on Herpes Simplex Virus Replication | Microbiology Society
  3. Suppressive effect of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol on herpes simplex virus infectivity in vitro - PubMed
  4. Effect of delta 9-tetrahydrocannabinol on herpes simplex virus type 2 vaginal infection in the guinea pig - PubMed
  5. delta-9-Tetrahydrocannabinol decreases host resistance to herpes simplex virus type 2 vaginal infection in the B6C3F1 mouse - PubMed
  6. Cannabinoids and Viral Infections - PMC
  7. Cannabidiol for Viral Diseases: Hype or Hope?
This content is for educational purposes only. The information provided is derived from research gathered from external sources.

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