Is the sun triggering your herpes outbreak?

Herpes, whether it is oral or genital herpes is always unpleasant, and the stigma surrounding them doesn’t help either.

Published: Thursday 01 August 2019



Herpes, whether it is oral or genital herpes is always unpleasant, and the stigma surrounding them doesn’t help either.

Herpes outbreaks can happen for a number of reasons. A weakened immune system, hormonal changes, and the common cold are all potential triggers for an outbreak to occur. The one trigger which might be surprising is the sunlight. Exposure to the sun can cause the outbreak, which can cause the HSV-1 virus to become active after staying dormant in the body causing a cold sore to develop. Oral herpes is common and its estimated that around 50-70% of the global population are affected.

How the sunlight affects herpes

Herpes affects people in different ways. Whilst some people are asymptomatic, meaning that they carry the HSV-1 virus but they don’t show any symptoms of it, others will experience frequent outbreaks.

The sunlight can trigger oral herpes, the main reason being the presence of ultraviolet (UV) radiation. Over exposure to UV radiation can affect the immune system, meaning it can no longer keep the HSV-1 virus controlled causing cold sore outbreaks. Researchers believe that the virus moves from the nerve ganglia into the cells on the lips and mouth.

Outbreaks of the HSV-2 virus or genital herpes is less commonly triggered by sunlight as it is not as exposed.

A study carried out by the Kobe University Graduate School of Medicine found that around 10.4% of those with the HSV-1 virus reported outbreaks. Interestingly, during the months of July and August, sun induced HSV-1 virus increased to 19.7%. 28% of participants younger than 30 reported outbreaks of oral herpes during the summer months.

How to reduce the risk of triggering a sun induced outbreak

The most effective way to reduce a sunlight triggered outbreak is to avoid sunlight. However, this might not be possible for most people, even if you try and intentionally avoid the sun you are still likely to come into contact with it at any point during the day.

Although the UV rays provide us with Vitamin D, long exposure in the sun can be harmful. If there is a risk of you catching sunburn, then you are at risk of a herpes outbreak. Although you can’t avoid the sun completely, there are many ways you can protect yourself after sun exposure:

  • Always use SPF before leaving the house, especially if you are going into an environment which has direct sunlight, such as the beach. Moisturise your lips with lip balm to help mitigate the effects of the dry climate on your lips.
  • Wear a hat to cover your face and lips from direct sunlight.
  • Avoid using tanning beds or anything similar which produces UV radiation, as this can weaken your immune system, increasing the risk of an outbreak.
  • Moisturisers containing tiger grass can be used on the face to increase protection from the sun. Also, use aloe vera after exposure to the sun to stop further irritating and damaging your skin.

How to treat sunlight triggered herpes outbreak

Sun induced outbreaks and outbreaks from other triggers are likely to have the same symptoms, so the treatment protocol is usually the same.

Treatments such as aciclovir or valaciclovir can help to stop the spreading of the HSV-1 virus by interrupting the replication of the virus, which can help to reduce the duration of the infection. Although both treatments are not a cure for herpes, they can help to reduce the severity and length of the outbreak.

If you do experience frequent outbreaks after exposing yourself to the sun, then it might be worth changing your habits to help with the frequency of the outbreaks. The above tips will help you lower your risk of UV radiation and help you live and manage them.

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