In this week's Sex IDK column, Emma McGowan, certified sex educator and writer, answers your questions about herpes outbreaks and treating STIs at home.
Q: I have herpes but I cured it myself with coconut oil. Should I go to the doctor?
Many people feel a lot of shame when they get a sexually transmitted infection (STI) diagnosis — I’ve been there myself. And in addition to just being an unnecessary bummer, that shame can keep people from going to the doctor to get proper treatment. But while it can be tempting to treat STIs with at-home remedies, I have to firmly advise against it.
First of all, unfortunately, there aren’t any home remedies that can cure an STI — including coconut oil, as much as I love it. If you noticed a change in symptoms after applying an at-home remedy, one of three things probably happened: Either you soothed the skin and reduced redness or swelling; the symptoms went away on their own, or it wasn’t actually an STI.
Plus, some at-home remedies can do more harm than good. Both penises and vaginas have very delicate skin that can easily become irritated, which means you have to be careful about what you put on them.
Additionally, vaginas and vulvas need to maintain a very delicate pH balance to keep functioning as the amazing self-cleaning organisms they are. As a result, if you put too many products down there that shouldn’t be there — including “all-natural” ones — you might find that you have a worse problem than the one you started with. Like a yeast infection. Or bacterial vaginosis. Or just a really itchy, swollen vulvas. And, trust me, you don’t want either of those.
And then there’s the fact that herpes isn’t actually curable, although it is treatable. That means there are medicines you can take to reduce the likelihood of having symptoms and make an outbreak last for a shorter time. But herpes, like most viruses, stays in your body for the rest of your life.
So, if your symptoms have gone away, that’s great! But you’re not “cured.” Now is the time to go to your doctor, talk to them about your outbreak, and get recommendations on what you should do moving forward. They’ll likely recommend a daily antiviral medication to reduce the likelihood that you’ll have another outbreak. It’s up to you whether or not you want to take it, of course, but that’s the best course of treatment for herpes that we have at this point.
Of course, if you still want to apply coconut oil to your genitals, that’s likely fine! The science is still a little iffy on whether or not coconut oil can hurt your vaginal flora, but the research is trending toward it being okay. If you’ve already been using it and haven’t had any issues come up, then you’re probably fine. Just be sure to always scoop it out with a clean spoon rather than your fingers in order to prevent mold or bacteria from growing in the jar.
Finally, I want to remind you that there’s no shame in having an STI. There’s a lot of stigma around sexually transmitted infections in our sex-negative society. But just as humans give each other the cold or flu virus, we also give each other herpes and HPV viruses. The only difference is the parts of the body those viruses like to live.
That’s it! Nothing to be ashamed of at all. So make that doctor’s appointment and get the treatment your body deserves.