Herpes simplex virus (HSV) is a common viral infection that anyone can acquire sexually from an infected person. The disease mostly affects the skin and soft mucous membranes of the genitals. The risk of viral transmission is also likely if someone touches an infected person’s rashes, sores or blisters. In most cases, herpes patients remain symptom-free but notoriously infectious to others.
Once the disease progresses to the symptomatic stage, the patient experiences blisters, open sores, pain, muscle ache, fever, itching in the genitals, buttocks and adjacent areas. Many patients don’t suffer these symptoms, or they have very mild symptoms that are often mistaken for insect bites.
These patients usually suffer painful, ugly cold sores or fever blisters — which are itchy, small, open wounds around the mouth or on the lips. These sores are extremely contagious, very difficult to cure and one may remain infected for a lifetime. As of now, there is no effective cure for cold sores.
As an alternative but effective option, marijuana comes to the rescue. Not all cannabinoids are effective in this instance, but THC has been shown to modulate the immune response and T-lymphocyte functions to counter the viral infection. I want to clear the cloud that surrounds cannabis use and bust the myth that using marijuana can increase risk of acquiring HSV infection. By the time you are done reading this article, you will fully understand that marijuana does’t cause HSV infections, but rather, it is a potential treatment for HSV infection.
Inhibition of herpes virus replication by cannabinoids
For decades, several studies have investigated the effect of THC on HSV-1 and HSV-2 viral replication processes. Upon analyzing the scientific literature, I can see few studies that concluded THC enhances viral replication directly or indirectly, while other studies reported THC suppressed HSV infectivity in a laboratory setting.
Reliable studies indicate THC inhibits HSV-2-specific glycoprotein synthesis, maturation and transport mechanisms. Inhibition of the viral glycoproteins tends to suppress infectivity as well as reduce the host’s inflammatory immune response. Another study has shown that very high concentrations of THC significantly reduced the infectivity of virions (a complete infectious virus particle) without eliciting any effect on viral replication at lower concentrations. A comparative clinical microbiology concluded that THC reduced the infectivity of HSV without causing any significant effect on adenovirus type 2 or poliovirus. With effective THC concentrations, a nearly 80% decrease in viral viability was observed, and the drug activity was dependent on the presence of serum proteins. The dose response was based on time and was dose concentration-dependent, without eliminating viral particles.
Molecular biological studies have shown that reactivation of latent viruses are initiated by modulation of certain extracellular signals and transcription factors. These factors activate viral replication factors, such as open reading frame 50 (ORF 50) that facilitates viral replication and the release of virions inside the host organisms.
Based on the knowledge of virological sciences, researchers have investigated the effect of THC on viral immune response in hosts. It has been shown that THC can modulate immune functions and relieve inflammatory reactions.
A recent review study observed the immunomodulating benefits of THC via modulation of CB2 receptors in the immune cells. By this immunosuppressive property, the CB2 agonist has the potential to dampen the immune response as well as sensitizing cannabis users to some — but not all — infections. The same study observed some evidence of resistance to infections after cannabinoids exposure.
THC weakly binds with cannabinoid receptors present in the brain and lymphoid cells. In these tissues, cannabinoid receptors influence immune signaling and viral gene activation in response to THC binding and dosage. This study concluded that THC inhibits viral lytic replication (viral reproduction) by interfering with DNA replication mechanisms in a dose-dependent manner.
THC-mediated viral inactivation was not influenced by the pH of the medium and hence the mechanism of action of viral inactivation could be different from the thermal inactivation of the virus. This study has shown that THC preferentially reduced the enveloped HSV infectivity, compared to other viruses, by unique biochemical reactions.
With this evidence, herpes virus infected patients can rest assured that marijuana can provide therapeutic relief — either by slowing or inhibiting viral replication.
Another notable advantage of medical marijuana is fewer drug-related side effects are associated with THC use compared to conventional drugs that are indicated to treat HSV infections.
Flip-flops in research conclusions
As of now, the available research evidence to support the anti-viral benefits of cannabinoids against HSV are scanty. Most of the contradictory studies are very early research evidence that cited the anecdotal reports.
The microbiological study on cannabis dates back to early 1972, and the researcher has reported frequent recurrences of HSV infections among cannabis smokers. The report did not cause a real negative impact on cannabis use, but more studies were initiated to examine the relationship between the two factors. The study reported the cannabis-induced immune functions alteration as a possible cause.
In one study, the authors reported that THC treatment facilitated HSV to exit latency and enter into the lytic infection phase of the viral life cycle. A recent experimental study contradicted all these findings and contended that THC treatment inhibited cancer-causing HSV replication.
One study has linked recurrent herpes virus infections with cannabis use. Another study has concluded that THC treatment significantly suppressed HSV-1 and HSV-2 viral replication in cell cultures and possible anti-viral mechanisms were also discussed. This study found THC treatment reduces the infectivity of HSV but did not elicit any significant anti-viral effects on poliovirus and adenovirus type 2.
It is generally accepted that low dose (micromolar concentration) THC can inhibit cancer-causing HSV and Epstein-Barr virus reactivation and also lytic replication of other similar viral strains.
But, the effective concentration needed to kill each virus is not same.
The effective killing concentration of THC for gamma HSV was not effective against HSV-1. Possibly, the variation might be due to dose-dependent selective inhibition of DNA replication. Also, endocannabinoids might play an important role in gamma HSV replication.
Based on these results, newer, THC-based antiviral strategies could be developed instead of employing conventional antiviral drugs, which are unacceptably toxic.
As of now, positive research evidence is scant; but it doesn’t mean cannabinoids are not effective anti-viral drugs. We are well aware of the anti-inflammatory effects of cannabinoids. In addition to the viral replication inhibitory property, the anti-inflammatory benefits of cannabinoids could counter the cell-mediated antiviral response after persistent infection.
At this time, we have enough evidence to know that THC can suppress HSV replication.
What we don’t know is:
- The other beneficial actions of cannabinoids against HSV
- Whether other cannabinoids, including CBD, possess the same (or more) anti-viral benefits or not
We need more large-scale clinical trials to see these benefits in a varied HSV patient population.
Treat your painful lesions and cold sores with cannabis cream
But until we see confirmatory positive results, we don’t have to wait to treat HSV infection symptoms. Look at the mounting self-reported benefits of cannabis-based balms and oils. It’s worth trying to see if it helps!
Yes, we can safely use cannabis oil and hemp-based balms to treat genital lesions and painful cold sores that occur with herpes simplex type I viral infection.
One cannabis-based herbal formulation has been patented as a potential treatment for cold sores and genital herpes infection.
It is a cannabis-based medication that contains cannabis oil and root extracts to treat genital herpes and herpes infection symptoms, including cold sores. The herpetic patient can apply the oil onto the lesion, cover the lesion(s) with medical-grade cannabis root fibres and finally with medical gauze to protect the affected skin area. It is recommended to leave the treated area undisturbed for a day and the gauze can be removed after 24 hours. The treatment can be continued for two to three days, and treatment benefits are apparently noticeable for the healing of herpes lesions, and recurrence is unlikely.
Herpes patients can get their cold sores treated with cannabis-based topical applications, such as oils and balms, that are easily available online. With an easy-to-use advantage, these formulations can treat or prevent HSV infections and symptoms, including cracks and cold sores, within few days.