Have you ever heard someone say, “Be careful, HERPES IS FOREVER!” If you’re like me, this scare tactic has been ingrained in us from a young age in order to try and deter us from sexual exploration. I won’t lie, it kinda worked.
But what it also did was give me major anxiety when it came to having sex when I was ready. How are we supposed to enjoy sex when we’re constantly wondering whether we are going to catch something that we’ll never be able to get rid of?
This is why I believe it is so important to share the real facts about STIs, without any of the scare tactics. What do we really need to worry about? And what can we live with?
Let’s start at the beginning
Herpes is a common viral infection caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). There are two types, HSV Type 1 traditionally being related to ulcers or “cold sores” around the mouth, and HSV Type 2 being traditionally related to genital ulcers.
This distinction between the two types has changed, as it has been found that both types may occur on the mouth or the genitals. This means that the location of the ulcer doesn’t tell us what type of HSV it is. This change can be attributed to the increase in frequency of oral sex.
Here’s an important fact
Herpes is the most common cause for ulcers in the genital region.
How will I know if I have Herpes?
Maybe you will never know!
Did you know that 80% of people with Herpes are asymptomatic? Yup! This means that if you go for STI testing, you can test positive for Herpes. BUT you will never have shown any signs or symptoms at all, and will have no idea how or when you got it.
Oral Herpes (around the mouth), also known as a “cold sore”
This is the most common way that Herpes presents itself. It may start with a burning, tingling sensation around the lips. This may progress to form little pink bumps or blisters which may look like pimples. These “pimples” or blisters then burst open and become painful ulcers.
When you have these ulcers, you are infectious and can pass the virus on to someone else for up to 5 days from the onset of the ulcer. These ulcers can go away on their own, or may require treatment to make them subside.
Herpes on the genitals presents itself in a similar way to Oral Herpes. The first few days after infection, you may experience: burning or itching of the genitals, burning urination, and a vaginal or urethral discharge.
After this phase, you may develop painful blisters which turn into ulcers on the external genitals (outer and inner labia, entrance to the vagina, penis, scrotum, buttocks and thighs) or internal blisters on the cervix.
These ulcers can last 4-15 days, much longer than Oral Herpes, and start to get crusty as they heal. As long as the ulcers are visible in any form, you are infectious.
A very small percent of people can pass on the virus even when they have no symptoms at all. This is called asymptomatic viral shedding.
The problem with Herpes
One of the main issues with Herpes, aside from the fact that is it VERY painful, is that it tends to recur. Once the ulcers have healed, and you’re no longer infectious, they can (and probably will) come back again in the future. The good news is that the recurrences tend to be less severe and don’t last as long as the first time.
Recurrences can be triggered by fever, trauma, emotional stress, sunlight (sunburn), or menstruation.
Most people will only have one or two recurrences with ulcers every year. Recurrences are more common, and more severe, in people who are immune compromised, such as those who have HIV, cancer or taking certain medications.
How does Herpes spread from one person to another?
Herpes can be spread by skin-to-skin contact, as well as through mucosal surfaces, such as the mouth, eyes and cervix. It is also carried in saliva, so can be spread by kissing and oral sex.
Herpes cannot spread by sharing of towels, clothes, or toilet seats as it is rapidly deactivated by exposure to room temperature.
How do I test for Herpes?
We can test for Herpes in a number of ways. We can take a swab of the ulcer itself and send it for a PCR test or culture. This is the most accurate way to detect a Herpes infection.
We can also do a blood test which looks for antibodies. This blood test can tell you whether you have been infected with the Herpes Virus Type 1 or 2 in the past.
I must mention though, if you cannot afford to get these tests (sometimes they can be very expensive!) your doctor or health care provider can usually give you the diagnosis just by having a good look at the ulcers. This obviously cannot work if you don’t have any ulcers at all.
How do I prevent getting or passing on Herpes?
As mentioned above, Herpes can be spread by skin-to-skin contact. This means that you will need to use barrier methods, like condoms and dental dams to protect yourself and others.
If you would like to know more about how to protect yourself from Herpes and other sexually transmitted infections, you’re in luck! I have created a Mini eBook called The Ultimate Guide to Safe Sex for Women Who Love Women. AND I’m giving it away ABSOLUTELY FREE for a limited time only!
Inside this guide you will find everything you need to know and more! It contains all my tips and tricks that will keep sex fun AND protected.
If you are worried about giving your partner Herpes, you can consider taking the treatment mentioned below in order to reduce how infectious you are as well.
What is the treatment for Herpes?
While there is treatment for the management of Herpes outbreaks, there is no cure. We may be able to get rid of the ulcers and reduce the time you are infectious, but you will always carry the Herpes virus with you, for the rest of your life.
I don’t say this to scare you, in fact, there is some weird comfort in it. I say this because, as you read earlier, up to 80% of people will have been infected at one point in their lives. You are definitely not alone!
Herpes is not a death sentence, it’s generally not dangerous. As long as your immune system is functioning normally (and you aren’t pregnant), there usually aren’t any dangerous complications if left untreated. Unlike with some other STIs, like HIV, Chlamydia or Gonorrhoea.
To treat Herpes recurrences or outbreaks, your doctor can prescribe a topical ointment or tablets, containing acyclovir or valacyclovir.
To sum it up
Herpes is super common, if you have had sex with more than two or three partners, you likely already have it. It’s more of a painful annoyance that ruins your aesthetic than anything else!
While there is treatment for the management of Herpes, there is no cure. Outbreaks can be managed with antiviral medications, and safer sex practices are important to prevent the spread.
Take care of yourself!
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Disclaimer: This blog contains my opinions and doesn’t reflect the opinions of the Department of Health of South Africa or The Southern African Sexual Health Association. All information is accurate and true to the best of my knowledge, but it’s possible that there may be omissions, errors or mistakes. While I am a qualified medical doctor, I am not YOUR doctor. The information presented on this blog is for entertainment and/or informational purposes only and shouldn’t be seen as professional medical advice. If you rely on any information presented, it’s at your own risk. Please consult a professional before taking any sort of action. I reserve the right to manage this blog as I see fit, including the right to remove harmful or unhelpful comments.