Below is a list of answers to the most common questions asked by people new to herpes. Arming yourself with the right knowledge can save a lot of mental suffering.
Questions & Answer:
- What is herpes?
- How did I catch herpes?
- How will herpes affect our relationship?
- What are the symptoms of herpes?
- Do the herpes symptoms return?
- What can my partner and I do to reduce the risk of herpes transmission?
- Is there a cure for herpes?
- Can I catch the herpes virus from toilets, tanning beds, etc.?
- How do I know if I have herpes?
- Where can I get more information and advice about herpes?
Herpes is a common infection generally transmitted through direct skin to skin contact during sexual acts. It is caused by one of two strains of the herpes virus family, which also includes the viruses causing chickenpox, shingles, and glandular fever. In the US population on average one in five people have genital herpes and eight out of ten have the herpes simplex 1 strain (cold sores).
Genital Herpes is usually caused by exposure to the herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2) and more rarely by the herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1). Although genital herpes can also be caused by HSV-1, this virus usually causes facial herpes, including cold sores on the lips. When the virus is spread to the genitals in this way it is usually through a situation where oral sex is involved, in which the virus on the mouth in the form of a cold sore, contacts and infects the region of the genitals.
For the majority of people herpes is a harmless skin condition that pops up from time to time, the stigma and mental anxiety is usually far worse than any of the symptoms, which usually are quite mild and insignficant.
Anyone who is sexually active is at risk of catching genital herpes, regardless of their gender, race or social class.
Herpes can be transmitted through direct contact with an infected blister or sore, usually during sexual contact. Many people can be carriers of the virus and rarely show symptoms. This means the virus can also be transmitted when there are no symptoms present.
HSV-2 infection is usually passed on during vaginal or anal sex. HSV-1 is usually transmitted to the genital area by oral sex (mouth to genital contact). Since the genital herpes virus can be transmitted through oral sex as well as vaginal sex, it is also possible to have caught the virus from a cold sore on your partner’s mouth or face. It is possible to pass the virus on even if there is no cold sore or herpes outbreak present at the time of contact.
If you have only just been diagnosed as having genital herpes and are in a monogamous relationship, this does not necessarily mean that your partner has been unfaithful to you, or that they have been sexually promiscuous in the past. It is possible for a person to carry the virus without knowing that they have it, since up to 80% of people who are infected with HSV-2 show no signs of the infection. So it is very easy for a person to unknowingly transmit the virus to a sexual partner.
The symptoms of the infection vary greatly between individuals. It might be totally unnoticeable in one person, but cause severe blistering and intense active outbreaks in another.
Alternatively, you may have contracted the virus from a previous sexual partner, perhaps even several years ago. A possibility of the lack of knowing the virus is in the body is that the previous symptoms could have been so slight that the herpes condition went unnoticed or was dismissed at the time (eg. a mild rash, itching or tingling).
The virus can remain inactive in the body for long periods, so this may be the first time since the original contact with the virus that it has caused active, noticeable symptoms. Usually in a case like this, there has been a sufficient level of resistance to the virus by the immune system for all the years it was dormant for and then generally due to a major event or an excessive amount of stress occurring, the body becomes overwhelmed and the virus then awakens within the compromised immune system.
For more information please visit the Herpes Transmission page on this blog.
Because of the stigma wrongly attached to genital herpes, it has probably taken a great deal of courage for you to tell your partner that you have the infection. If you have not already told your partner and need advice on how to do this please click here.
You may find that the honesty and trust brought about by discussing genital herpes strengthens your relationship and brings you closer together. Support and understanding can help to overcome much of the anxiety that you may be feeling about genital herpes.
A good long-term relationship must always be based on honesty and trust. While some people may experience an unsupportive response, most have found that their partners are both supportive and understanding.
If you are having your first episode of herpes, you are likely to feel generally unwell and have fever, headache, and general joint and muscle aches, as well as experiencing irritation in the genitals. This stage of the virus’s activity is known as the prodromal period; where the virus is becoming activated within the nervous system and can be felt as the fore mentioned symptoms.
These initial prodromal symptoms may last for several days, during or after which, reddened areas may appear on the genitals. Most commonly this reddened area will progress into blisters, which then burst, leaving sores which then gradually heal, generally without scarring. Outbreaks are not always identical in each individual. Not everyone gets fluid filled lesions; they can manifest in forms such as pimple-like sores or as contained and hard bumps.
The severity of the very first episode of the virus varies between individuals, but for some people it may be very severe and last for up to three weeks if it is not treated. Generally the original outbreak is one of the most intense viral episodes of all the ones you will experience. These symptoms should quickly resolve with treatment, usually within several days.
A doctor will most likely give you a course of an antiviral treatment. This is an effective medicine which, although it does not cure genital herpes, can speed recovery and reduce the severity of the episode. Natural supplements such as Immune Support and Combined Lysine Formula (or similar ingredients) can help too.
For many people with genital herpes, the physical consequences of the infection are far outweighed by the emotional feelings it evokes. There are many misconceptions about genital herpes, including the belief that it is associated with promiscuity, and these have given it a reputation which may cause you to feel angry and shocked by the diagnosis. You may feel betrayed by your partner, or by a previous partner who may have transmitted the infection. This is an understandable reaction but there must come the time when acceptance is reached. For support and information on dealing with the emotional sides of herpes please visit the Emotional Healing & Support section of this blog.
Anxiety, guilt, loss of assertiveness and fear of rejection are also common emotions that may arise from the situation. The support of a partner, friend, or family member can be very important in helping you to deal with these feelings and to minimize the effect of genital herpes on your life. Ultimately though, it is you who needs to evoke the vast strength and wisdom that is already inherent within you. With this you can transform your challenges into substantial and pivotal, self-evolving opportunities.
The symptoms of genital herpes may reappear from time to time. This is because once the viral infection is acquired, it stays permanently in the body. Most of the time the virus remains inactive, but every so often it may reactivate and cause another outbreak. The amount of outbreaks experienced will be dictated by your general health, immunity, diet and lifestyle.
Each individual is different – some people never have a recurrence. Others may have recurrences several times a year. However, the recurrent outbreaks are usually shorter and less severe than the very first episode. Often times the difference in consistency of each individuals outbreaks is due to their immune system and it’s ability to suppress the virus.
Certain events or situations can trigger recurrences, and you may be able to avoid or reduce the outbreaks by understanding the triggering factors; this may include stress at work or home, fatigue, ill health, loss of sleep, friction due to sexual intercourse, getting sunburned, eating foods high in arginine and menstruation in women.
If you take the necessary precautions, the chances of transmitting the virus to your partner are small. Having Genital herpes does not have to mean complete abstinence from sex or even a reduced enjoyment of sex.
The risk of transmitting the virus can be reduced even more if you use condoms. The continued use of condoms in a long-term relationship is a personal decision that only the couple can make. Most find that as the importance of the HSV infection in their relationship becomes less relevant and is seen in a different perspective, that condom use can become less necessary. This is of course if the only reason for the condoms are for viral prevention and not as a contraceptive.
At all costs couples should try to avoid sexual intercourse during an active episode of herpes, because this is when the virus is most likely to be transmitted. This period includes the time from when your partner first has warning signs of an outbreak (prodromal), such as tingling or burning in the genitals, until the last of the sores have healed. Sexual activity can also prolong the healing of the episode.
The risk of transmission is increased if there are any breaks in the skin, for example, if you have thrush or small abrasions from sexual intercourse (often due to insufficient lubrication). It can be helpful to use a lubricant to prevent any damage to skin, specifically for sexual intercourse and to avoid sex completely if you have thrush. Lubrication is helpful when used from the very beginning of the sexual act.
Sores in other areas, such as the buttocks and thighs, are just as contagious as those in the genital area, and care should be taken to avoid direct contact with such sores during sex. Any outbreaks should be an indication that having sex is not ideal at that time and should not be considered until they have cleared.
At other times when there is no visible appearance of an outbreak, there is still a small risk of transmitting the infection; this is even if your partner is showing no signs of genital herpes. This risk is very minimal (at least 5% of days during the year), but still valid and needs to be considered when in a sexual relationship. The use of natural or prescription suppressive therapies and the strengthening of one’s immune system, can greatly reduce the possibility of this type of undetectable transmission.
If you or your partner has a cold sore, it is advisable to avoid oral sex as this can spread the virus to the genitals via the contact of the mouth to the genitals.
It is highly unlikely that you would catch herpes by sharing cups, towels, bath/spa water, or from toilet seats. The virus need a very specific temperature range to survive and does not live long outside the body. During an outbreak, it is only skin to skin contact from the active sores to the parts of your partner’s body which you need to avoid. You can still be intimate and cuddle, share a bed and kiss.
Although the herpes virus is relatively easy to kill in a laboratory dish, a problem arises when the attempt to kill it is within the human body, as this virus hides itself inside an apparently normal host nerve cell until it has multiplied itself and is ready to migrate. This is when an outbreak occurs and blisters appear. The virus will literally attached to healthy nerve cells and is only active when triggered. It remains dormant within the spinal nerve bundles until it is activated. This makes it virtually impossible to destroy and the best that any aspect of medicine have to offer at this point are ways of greatly hindering the viral activity and thereby reducing the amount of outbreaks that can occur.
A total cure is not out of the question and has been observed many times by patients and physicians in the form of complete removal of active outbreaks from one’s life. In cases like these, it is likely due to the person’s immune system sufficiently dominating and killing the virus for an extensive amount of years.
Treatment should be accompanied by paying close attention to one’s diet and general health. For more information please visit the Diet & Lifestyle Tips section of this blog.
In theory the virus will die very quickly once the temperature drops or the moisture around the viral cell dries up, but a scenario can be suggested in where the temperature and moisture of an environment such as a toilet seat, allows the virus to hold on long enough for it to survive outside the body for several minutes. This could arise when an infected person leaves the virus in droplets of warm urine on the toilet seat and someone uses that toilet seat within a few minutes. This could apply also to sweat on a tanning bed as another example. In any of these cases, if a person has a cut or break in the skin and comes into contact with that pool of warm urine or warm sweat, the chances of infection are dramatically greater. To avoid the chances of scenarios like these occurring, wipe toilet seats hygienically before use and prepare gym equipment or machines such as tanning beds in a hygienic manner; this could involve cleaning down the surface before use.
It is generally considered that the spreading of genital herpes through inanimate objects, such as soap, towels, clothing, bed sheets, toilet seats, tanning beds, gym machines and spa surfaces, although not impossible, is highly unlikely and should not be of great concern. This comes back to the fact that the herpes virus cannot live very long outside of the body and would require very specific conditions and timing for it to occur.
The usual symptoms of herpes begin with feeling generally unwell. You may have a fever, headache, and general joint or muscle aches, as well as irritation and sensations in the genital region. This may last for several days, during or after which a reddened area may appear on the genitals. This may progress to develop into blisters, which then burst, leaving scabbed sores which gradually heal, usually without leaving scarring.
Signs of infection vary greatly between individuals and it is possible for you to show only mild symptoms that are not so easily recognizable as being genital herpes. These may include itching in the genital area, small cracks in the skin around the genitals, or reddened patches of skin in the genital area, thighs or buttocks. You also may have no symptoms at all and simply be a carrier of the virus. It is important to have regular STD screenings and if there is any suspicion that you may have herpes, it is crucial that a blood test is done to determine the reality of the situation.
Consult your doctor if you think you might be showing signs of the infection. Until recently, diagnosis could only be made by clinical symptoms and swabs to detect the virus during an active episode. However, blood tests are now becoming commercially available which can distinguish between HSV-1 and HSV-2 antibodies. The time taken to develop antibodies after initial infection is normally 8 to 12 weeks and because of this, it is important to know that false negative results can occur with these tests.
Blood tests can tell you whether or not you are infected with HSV-1 and/or HSV-2, but cannot identify the site of infection. A swab taken from a genital site test is also required. If this tests positive, that is, the virus is detected on that site where the swab is taken, then the diagnosis of herpes is confirmed.
After you have read this information, you might have specific questions or concerns. Your doctor should be able to answer such questions or recommend other experts who can provide advice and support. If you find this is not sufficient, you may be benefit visiting the largest herpes community online. In some areas, there are local herpes support groups that can be a valuable source of information and support.