Herpes is a sexually transmitted disease caused by the virus known as the herpes simplex virus (HSV). Herpes causes sores to develop on the mouth, anus, thighs, and genital areas of infected men and women. There are actually two forms of the herpes simplex virus: type 1 is responsible for causing blisters on the mouth and lips (commonly known as cold sores or fever blisters); type 2 is responsible for causing the majority of genital herpes outbreaks. Herpes appears to be on the rise throughout North America and Europe. In the United Kingdom alone, there are more than 15 million people infected with genital herpes.
How Do You Get Herpes?
Herpes can be contracted through sexual activity or close, skin-to-skin contact with an infected person.
You can get the herpes virus by engaging in:
- vaginal sex
- anal sex
- oral sex
- mutual masturbation
Herpes can be transmitted during active symptom outbreaks (when sores are visible) and during periods when herpes sores are not visible. This is because the herpes virus can be shed through the skin even when symptoms are not present. Pregnant women can also spread the herpes virus to their babies during delivery.
Who’s At Risk for Developing Herpes?
Herpes is a very common STD, so all sexually active men and women are at risk for contracting the disease. However, certain factors can increase your risk for contracting herpes.
These factors include:
- having multiple sex partners
- engaging in unsafe sex practices
- having a suppressed immune system (associated with HIV/AIDS, and other immune diseases)
Women appear to contract herpes more easily than men.
What are the Symptoms of Herpes?
Herpes symptoms tend to vary from person to person: some people may experience very mild symptoms, while others may have more painful and longer-lasting outbreaks. Initial herpes symptoms appear within two weeks of infection. You may notice a tingling or burning sensation around your genitals or rectum followed by the appearance of small, painful red sores.
These sores can develop on the vagina, penis, cervix, rectum, or mouth, and may eventually develop into blisters. These blisters typically heal within four weeks. You may also experience additional symptoms, including:
- swollen lymph glands
- muscle aches
- painful urination
Do Herpes Symptoms Reoccur?
Herpes symptoms generally reoccur several times throughout the year. These recurrences are known as outbreaks and happen because the herpes virus remains dormant inside of the body.
The herpes virus lives inside of the nerve cells and, when reactivated, rises to the surface of the skin causing herpes sores. Some people experience only a few outbreaks a year, while others may experience six or more outbreaks. Outbreaks tend to become less severe and less frequent over time.
No one is really sure what causes the herpes virus to reactivate, although you may find that you experience outbreaks when you are ill, when you are having your period, or after being exposed to the sun for a long time. Herpes treatment will help alleviate the outbreaks.
Complications of Herpes?
Generally speaking, the herpes STD does not cause any severe health complications. However, those with severely suppressed immune systems may experience acute and prolonged outbreaks. The main complication associated with the herpes virus is that it stays in your body for life.
In young infants, though, herpes can be very dangerous. If you contract herpes during pregnancy, your baby is at risk for contracting the herpes illness. This illness can cause brain damage, eye problems, and rashes in newborns.
It can also increase your chances of experiencing preterm labor or stillbirth. Women with active herpes outbreaks during labor usually have cesarean sections to reduce their baby’s chances of contracting the disease.
Herpes diagnosis is typically based on a physical exam. Your health care provider should be able to identify a herpes infection by looking at sores that appear on the mouth, rectum, or in the genital region. Herpes can also be diagnosed by performing a culture test.
To perform a culture test, swabs of your herpes sores are taken and then cultured in a laboratory over several days. These cultures are then examined under a microscope for evidence of the herpes virus.
Treatment for Herpes
Unfortunately, there is no cure for herpes. There are however several herpes remedies. Your health care provider can offer you antiviral medication to help relieve your symptoms and prevent future outbreaks from occurring.
Common medications include:
If you are infected with herpes, you can also take valacyclovir on a daily basis to help reduce your chances of transmitting the herpes virus to your sex partner. However, transmission of the virus is still possible.
You can help to significantly reduce your chances of contracting herpes by following these simple steps:
- Reduce your number of sexual partners.
- Always use a condom or dental dam during sexual activity.
- Get tested frequently for STDs. Make sure that your partner gets tested too.
Join our STD forum for more information about contracting STDs from sex or anal sex.