For the more than one in six Americans aged 14 to 49 who have genital herpes, life for the most part is lived without complication or pain. However, the psychological and social implications of the disease can be much more complicated. That said, should those who have or live with someone has herpes be concerned? Learning about what herpes is and when it is contagious can help.
What is Herpes?
There are two viruses that cause herpes, herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) and herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2). Most cases of genital herpes are caused by HSV-2, while most cases of oral herpes (which can cause cold sores around the mouth) are caused by HSV-1. Herpes most often is diagnosed by appearance alone, when there are one or more sores present. Herpes can also be confirmed with a swab test or blood test.
Recognizing Herpes Symptoms
Most people who have herpes do not have symptoms. For others, the virus lays dormant for years before presenting any recognizable symptoms. Up to 90% of those who have herpes are not aware that they have it until they experience an outbreak, which most often presents with sores and blisters.
HSV-1 is recognized usually by cold sores or canker sores located around the mouth. Cold sores can be painful and certainly an inconvenience; you can expect an outbreak within two to twenty days after exposure. The initial outbreak of HSV-1 most often is the most severe; expect fever, muscle pain, sore throat and headache, swollen glands and being tired.
Regarding HSV-2, an initial outbreak of herpes is usually the most severe and most painful. Along with sores around the genitals or anus, you may experience flu-like symptoms of fever, aches, and/or swollen glands. Many never have any symptoms at all after the first outbreak, or symptoms may occur several times in a year. Outbreaks usually last no more than two weeks total from the first tingling and irritation (called prodrome) to development of sores, concluded by healing.
How Contagious is Genital Herpes?
Oral herpes is very contagious and can be contracted through contact with an infected razor, glass, toothbrush, or by kissing.
Genital herpes is classified as a sexually transmitted disease (STD), and anyone who participates in oral, anal, or vaginal sex is susceptible if exposed. However, it is not as contagious as you may think. Avoiding sex when you have symptoms, either prodrome or an outbreak, can greatly reduce the possibility of transmitting herpes to your partner. Using condoms further reduces the risk by about half. These are the numbers:
- For a woman with HSV in a monogamous sexual relationship, there is a 4% chance that her partner will become infected in one year of unprotected sex, if they abstain from sex when she has symptoms.
- If a man is infected, there is an 11% chance of transmitting HSV to his partner in the course of one year of unprotected sex, if they abstain when symptoms are present.
Treatment for Herpes
With HSV-1, the good news is that most cold sores last only a few days and can be treated with a variety of home remedies (vitamin E, aloe vera or echinacea, as examples); or over-the-counter medications such as Abreva, zinc oxide rub or Orajel. A healthy diet will keep your immune system healthy, further preventing any outbreaks or lessening your risk of exposure.
As for HSV-2, it is possible to pass herpes to a sexual partner when there are no symptoms present. Antiviral drugs such as Valtrex® (generic valacyclovir) can shorten the length of an outbreak and decrease the severity of symptoms. Some choose to take these medications at the first sign of an outbreak. If outbreaks happen frequently or if you are sexually active, your doctor may recommend taking antiviral medication every day. This suppresses the virus and further decreases risk of transmission.
Finding out you have herpes can be a very upsetting; you may feel angry, frightened, embarrassed or ashamed. Your doctor can help you realize that herpes is not the end of the world. And while there is no cure for herpes, abstaining from sex when there are symptoms, practicing safe sex, and/or daily use of antiviral medication can greatly reduce the risk of giving it to your partner.
The compassionate providers at Advanced Medical Clinic in Wellington and Royal Palm Beach care for acute and chronic conditions throughout their patients’ lives. Husband and wife team, internal medicine specialist Dr. Ishan Gunawardene and nurse practitioner Shariffa Gunawardene provide continuity of care from minor illness to managing life-threatening conditions and look forward to welcome you into their healthcare family. Call (561) 434-1935 for an appointment at Advanced Medical Clinic today. We offer same day appointments for your convenience.
For the more than one in six Americans aged 14 to 49 who have genital herpes, life for the most part is lived without complication or pain