Updated: Feb 10
What is Herpes?
Herpes is a virus that causes contagious sores, most often around the mouth or on the genitals. It is very common.
When we say common, we mean REALLY common.
There are about 572,000 cases of genital herpes every year in America. Genital herpes is so common in the US that more than 1 out 6 people are diagnosed with it between the ages of 14-49.
Herpes does not have a cure.
While herpes isn’t curable, your health care provider can give you medication to help shorten or even prevent outbreaks. One of these medications can even help you decrease the chances of spreading it to your partner.
How is herpes spread?
Genital herpes can be spread through vaginal, anal, or oral sex. Unlike many common STIs, herpes can also be spread through the mouth and saliva. Luckily, herpes cannot survive on other surfaces, so you cannot contract herpes from touching an object that an infected individual has come in contact with.
Oral herpes is generally contracted during childhood or early adulthood from non-sexual contact with infected saliva. In rare cases, you can be born with herpes if your mother is infected.
What are the symptoms?
Part of the reason herpes is so common is that there usually are no symptoms.
Those with genital herpes often experience very mild symptoms, if any at all. Sometimes you may not even notice these symptoms or mistake them for a skin condition. Since this happens frequently, a majority of people who have herpes don’t know. However, if you do have symptoms, these will include herpes sores around, or on, the mouth, rectum, or genitals. They can show up as a singular blister or multiple. When they break, they are extremely painful and leave sores. These can take up to a week or longer to heal. When experiencing your first outbreak, you can also have flu-like symptoms. For example, you may experience a fever, body aches, or swollen glands. People who experience an initial outbreak can probably expect to have more than one, especially when infected with HSV-2 (genital herpes). The repeat outbreaks are usually a lot shorter and less severe than the first one and sometimes might not show up as often, either.
Oral herpes also tends to have very mild symptoms and is often mistaken for something else (chapped lips, bug bites, or just a small crack in the skin) or not even noticed at all. The symptoms include sores in and on the mouth, the back of the throat, and the lymph nodes in the neck. Many people will experience prodromes, which are essentially warning symptoms prior to an outbreak. A prodrome is an itching, tingling, or painful sensation in the area the sores will appear. These prodromes appear a day or two before an outbreak. You should avoid close contact during this time and during the outbreak to prevent it from spreading.
When and if you accidentally touch the fluid or sores, wash your hands immediately and thoroughly.
If you touch your sores or the fluids from the sores, you can transfer herpes to other parts of your body. You can even spread it to your eyes.
How does testing work?
Testing for herpes is a little different from other viral STIs.
Sometimes your healthcare provider will simply examine your symptoms and diagnose you with herpes. They also can take samples from the sore(s) and test them. However, in certain cases, you’ll undergo a blood test to look for herpes antibodies. A herpes blood test cannot tell you who you were infected by or how long ago you were infected. It's important to get tested regularly. If you're sexually active, this means at least once per year. Even if you or your partner don't show symptoms, you should follow this general rule of thumb.
What if I have it?
So, your results came back positive.
The first thing to remember is that this is nothing to be ashamed of. Like we said earlier, this is a very, very common infection. If you or your partner have herpes, it does not necessarily mean anyone cheated. Test results may not detect the infection until well after contracting it, and herpes can be spread through non-sexual contact.
How do I get rid of it?
Unfortunately, herpes cannot be cured. However, you can be given anti-herpes medication to help suppress outbreaks. Some of these anti-herpes medications can even keep you from spreading to your sexual partner(s). If you are in a relationship with someone who has herpes, you can prevent yourself from getting it by making sure that they are taking their anti-herpes medication every day. You also need to avoid having any sexual contact with them while they are enduring an outbreak.
For real, getting frisky can wait.
Willingly risking your or your partner's sexual health isn't sexy. Peace of mind is sexy.
John Hopkins Medicine. (n.d.). Herpes: HSV-1 and HSV-2. Retrieved from https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/herpes-hsv1-and-hsv2
American Sexual Health Association. (n.d.). Oral Herpes. American Sexual Health Association. https://www.ashasexualhealth.org/oral-herpes/
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2017, August 28). STD Facts - Genital Herpes. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/std/herpes/stdfact-herpes.htm