STDs: What to Know about Herpes
7 of 13 in Series: The Essentials of Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs)
Herpes, which is caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV), is an incurable STD. Herpes actually has two forms: herpes simplex–type 1 (HSV-1) and herpes simplex–type 2 (HSV-2). HSV-1 is most often associated with cold sores and fever blisters above the waist. About 80 percent of American adults have oral herpes. About 25 percent of adults have genital herpes, though most are not aware of it, and their symptoms are too mild to notice, but they can still pass the disease on.
The most common symptoms of genital herpes arise from a rash with clusters of white, blistery sores appearing on the vagina, cervix, penis, mouth, anus, or other parts of the body. This rash can cause pain, itching, burning sensations, swollen glands, fever, headache, and a run-down feeling. The first symptoms may be more severe than the symptoms of later outbreaks because the immune system is not as well prepared to fight off the disease the first time around. However, a person may have no symptoms, and his or her first outbreak may occur months or even years after exposure. HSV-2 symptoms can occur on the thighs, buttocks, anus, or pubis. People who suffer only mild symptoms may mistake them for some other condition, such as insect bites, jock itch, yeast infections, hemorrhoids, or ingrown hair follicles. Some lesions may be so small that they remain invisible to the human eye. And if a small lesion appears inside a woman’s vagina, she will never see it.
Although these symptoms can lead to discomfort, they aren’t dangerous, and herpes doesn’t affect the immune system or lead to other health problems.
Knowing when herpes is contagious
Most people think that herpes is contagious only when the sores are present, but studies have shown that some people may spread the disease during the few days just before an outbreak called prodrome, when they have no sores.
An infected person may figure out how to recognize the warning signs that occur during prodrome, which may include itching, tingling, or a painful feeling where the lesions will develop.
During pregnancy, herpes may cause miscarriage or stillbirth, and the disease can be passed on to newborns, especially if the mother contracts the disease during her third trimester. A mother who has herpes before this usually passes on her antibodies to the baby.
If the sores are active during childbirth, they pose serious health consequences for the babies. To avoid these consequences, doctors usually perform cesarean sections when active sores are visible during the time of childbirth.
If you have herpes, you should always use a condom when having sex, unless your partner already has the disease.
Although you should always use a condom, you should know that condoms can’t entirely protect you from herpes. If the man has the disease, and the only sores are on his penis, then a condom offers some protection to the woman. However, because vaginal secretions may leak over the pelvic area not protected by the condom, the condom doesn’t protect men as much. And if the herpes virus is being shed from another part of the body, such as the hips or buttocks, a condom offers no protection at all.
Herpes can spread beyond genital contact to other parts of the already-infected person’s body. If you touch a herpes sore, always wash your hands thoroughly before touching anyone else or any other part of your body. Be aware that oral herpes can be transmitted by kissing, sharing towels, or drinking from the same glass or cup.
New treatments of herpes include more accurate tests, and although doctors still have no cure for herpes, new medications are effective at keeping the virus in check. Zovirax (acyclovir) has been available since the 1970s and can now be obtained in generic form. Valtrex (valacyclovir) and Famvir (famciclovir) have a more active ingredient and are better absorbed and need to be taken less frequently.
See a doctor if you suspect that you have the disease, both to make sure that herpes really is the cause of the symptoms and to learn how to live with herpes and not spread it to others. If you are infected, the doctor can give you a set of rules to follow to help keep you from contaminating other people or other parts of your body. Studies also have shown that if someone whose partner has herpes takes Valtrex, their chances of becoming infected are much less.
Researchers now believe that herpes lesions act as an entryway for HIV, so that people infected by herpes are much more likely to become infected with HIV if they come in contact with the virus. So although herpes itself may not be deadly, having herpes can have deadly consequences.