What's That Sore? The Lowdown on Herpes

By Aimee Pelletier
Click for Full Image Size
Can my partner get herpes from me when no symptoms are present and he uses a condom?

There's a lot of confusion about herpes out there. One reason is that there are two types of herpes, caused by two similar viruses. One type is herpes simplex virus 1 (HSV-1) and the other type is herpes simplex virus 2 (HSV-2). Both types are very contagious.

These viruses can cause oral herpes and genital herpes. A herpes infection on or in the mouth is called oral herpes. An infection in the genital area is called ... yup, you guessed it — genital herpes. Both HSV-1 and HSV-2 can be sexually transmitted.

Oral and genital herpes sores look very similar but occur on different parts of the body. Most oral herpes infections come from HSV-1 and most genital herpes infections come from HSV-2. These viruses are pretty common — about 254 million Americans have gotten herpes through oral contact, and at least 50 million Americans have gotten herpes through genital contact.

What are the symptoms?

Oral herpes causes cold sores or fever blisters on the lips or inside the mouth. Cold sores and fever blisters are common in young children because parents can pass oral herpes on to their kids with a goodnight kiss.

Genital herpes symptoms include

* recurring rash with clusters of blistery sores appearing anywhere on the vagina, vulva, cervix, penis, anus, buttocks, or elsewhere on the body

* pain and discomfort in the genital area

* itching and burning sensations during urination

Herpes does not always have symptoms. That's right! Herpes does not necessarily cause any outward, visible symptoms. When someone does have symptoms, the sores can last up to several weeks and then go away. The sores can return — which is called an outbreak or recurrence — up to six times a year or more, or they may not return for years, if ever.

Does herpes ever go away?

Once you've been exposed to HSV-1 or HSV-2, blood tests for herpes will come back revealing that you have the virus. But that doesn't mean that you'll always have symptoms — or that you've ever had symptoms. Herpes can't be cured, but outbreaks usually occur less often and become less severe over time. In fact, for most people, frequent outbreaks stop within five years.

How is herpes spread?

Herpes is spread by touching, kissing, and sexual contact (including vaginal, anal, and oral sex). Condoms don't always protect against herpes because the virus can be transmitted to skin that is not covered by a condom.

The virus is more contagious if an outbreak is present (although it's also possible, but less likely, for the virus to spread even if there is no sign of an outbreak). An outbreak or recurrence is most contagious until seven days after sores have completely healed — when not even scabs are visible.

What if I have a herpes outbreak?

While you have an outbreak, you are more susceptible to catching other sexually transmitted infections. During an outbreak, you can also spread the virus to other parts of your body as well as to other people. If you have an outbreak

* Do not touch the sores. If you do, wash your hands with soap and water (which will kill the virus).

* Wash your hands often, especially after going to the bathroom and before touching your eyes (because a herpes infection of the eye can lead to a very serious infection and even blindness).

* Avoid genital contact during an outbreak, even with a condom. Having sex during an outbreak irritates the sores, which then take longer to heal. And don't forget — you can still spread herpes even when using a condom.

Pregnant women may pass the virus to newborns if birth occurs during an outbreak. Cesarean sections are often done in these cases to prevent serious damage to the newborn.

Who has genital herpes?

Millions of people have genital herpes and don't even know it, because they had no symptoms or their symptoms were minor. Because the sores of an outbreak go away and do not always recur, and because they can be mistaken for minor problems like razor burn, many people never see a clinician to get a proper diagnosis.

If you think you've been exposed to herpes or have symptoms (today or in the past) that sound like those described above, see your clinician. The clinician can take swabs of the sores or perform a blood test to see if you have herpes. Although there is no cure for herpes, there are prescription drugs available to treat the symptoms and to reduce the number of recurrences.

To make an appointment for testing or treatment at your local Planned Parenthood