LET’S GET INTO IT: HERPES
Herpes gets a lot of bad press, but it’s both more common and less scary than most people would have you believe. Genital herpes is a common STD that’s caused by skin-to-skin contact transmission of the herpes simplex virus type 2 and, occasionally, type 1. While it’s not curable, it is very common, doesn’t cause infertility (like some other STDs), and there is medication that can help people who catch it shorten and prevent outbreaks and sores.
EVERYTHING YOU WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT HERPES
HOW DOES GENITAL HERPES SPREAD?
Genital herpes is spread from skin-to-skin contact with a person who has genital herpes and is actively contagious. But please note: “actively contagious” doesn’t necessarily means someone has visible sores. A person with genital herpes can be actively contagious and spread the virus even if they’re not showing symptoms.
Also, when we say “skin-to-skin contact,” we’re really talking about contact between genitals and skin in that area. Herpes can be spread via sex — vaginal, anal, and oral — as well as genital touching, childbirth, and potentially from breastfeeding, if a baby is exposed to an open sore.
You won’t get genital herpes from toilet seats, bedding, or swimming pools, or from touching objects like silverware, soap, or towels.
WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN GENITAL HERPES AND ORAL HERPES?
There are two herpes virus: herpes simplex 1 and herpes simplex 2. The main difference between them is where they like to hang out in your body. Herpes simplex 1 primarily lives in nerves in your cheek and shows up as oral herpes, also known as cold sores. Herpes simplex 2 primarily lives in nerves at the base of your spine and shows up as genital herpes.
However, if someone with oral herpes who is actively contagious performs oral sex on someone, they can pass on the virus from their mouth to their partner’s genitals. That’s why we say that genital herpes is “sometimes” caused by herpes simplex 1.
WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS OF GENITAL HERPES?
Most people who get genital herpes don’t have any symptoms — or the symptoms are so mild, they think they’re something else, like a pimple or ingrown hair.
The most common symptom of genital herpes are groups of itchy or painful blisters around your vagina, vulva, cervix, penis, butt, anus, or the inside of the thighs. The blisters sometimes “pop” and create sores than can take about a week to heal. When people have sores, it’s called an “outbreak” and sometimes they also have a fever, headache, or swollen lymph nodes.
WHERE CAN I GET TESTED?
Your doctor can test you for herpes if you’re showing symptoms, but they probably won’t if you’re not showing symptoms. But if you don’t have a regular doctor — or you just don’t feel comfortable talking to them about this issue — check out our map for testing sites around DC.
WHY DID MY DOCTOR SAY THEY WON’T TEST ME FOR HERPES?
Most doctors won’t test for herpes unless a person is showing active symptoms. That’s because the only way to test if you don’t have sores is via a blood test.
But there are a lot of problems with the blood test. First of all, about half of all people have the herpes simplex 1 virus — the one that primarily causes cold sores. There’s no way to tell from the blood test whether or not you have that in your genitals, too. The tests also aren’t very reliable, with a large number coming back false, both negative and positive.
With all of that in mind — plus the stigma and potential disruption in a person’s life that a positive diagnosis can cause — most doctors choose not to do a herpes test if a person isn’t showing symptoms and have never had symptoms in the past. If you are showing symptoms, however, they’ll more than likely be down to test.
HOW IS GENITAL HERPES TREATED?
While herpes isn’t curable, medication can prevent or shorten outbreaks. It can also lower your chances of spreading the infection to your partner. Your doctor can give you antiviral medicine to take right after an outbreak, or to stop your first outbreak from happening at all.
During an outbreak, you can speed up your healing time and prevent genital herpes from spreading to other parts of your body and to other people. It’s important to keep sores clean and dry, try not to touch them, wash your hands if you do touch them, and avoid all sexual contact until the sores have totally healed.
HOW DO I LOWER MY CHANCES OF GETTING HERPES?
You can lower your chances of getting genital herpes by using condoms. However, because herpes is spread via skin-to-skin contact and condoms only cover the shaft of the penis, they don’t provide as much protection against herpes as they do against other STDS.
The FC2 — which is commonly called the “female condom” or “internal condom” — provides more protection against herpes than an external condom. That’s because its design actually does cover more skin, either on the vulva or around the anus, depending on where you’re using it. Click here to learn more about the FC2.
CAN GENITAL HERPES COME BACK?
Once you have the herpes virus, it stays dormant in your body forever. And, sometimes, for some people, it becomes active again and they have an outbreak. But the good news is that some people only have one or two outbreaks after they’re infected and taking care of your health can help ward off a herpes outbreak. So eat well. Exercise. Get enough sleep. A tall order, we know, but it really does help.
WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN GENITAL HERPES AND GENITAL WARTS?
Genital herpes and genital warts are both STDs that are spread through skin-to-skin contact. Both are also caused by viruses — but not the same virus. Genital herpes is caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV), and genital warts are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). They’re different infections and having one doesn’t mean you have the other.