Herpes: Herpes is a common sexually transmitted infection that is caused by two viruses, herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) and herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2). Any sexually active person can get herpes. A person can get genital herpes by having vaginal, anal, or oral sex with someone who has the disease. Most people with the infection do not have symptoms. Even without signs or symptoms of the infection, herpes can still be spread to partners. Genital herpes is common in the United States, estimated to affect more than one in every six people aged 14 to 49 years.
Oral herpes is usually caused by HSV-1 and can cause sores or blisters on or around the mouth. Most people with oral herpes were infected during childhood or young adulthood via saliva, not from sexual contact. HSV-1 in the oral area can be spread to the genitals through oral sex. This is why some cases of genital herpes are caused by HSV-1.
A person becomes infected with the virus when he or she comes in contact with the herpes virus via:
- A herpes sore
- Genital secretions
- Skin in the oral or genital area
You can get herpes from a sex partner who does not have a visible sore or who may not know he or she is infected. A person can get genital herpes if he or she receives oral sex from a sex partner who has oral herpes. A person does not get herpes from toilet seats, bedding, swimming pools, towels or other bathroom items.
The only way to avoid getting genital herpes is to not have vaginal, anal, or oral sex. If you are sexually active you can reduce the risk of getting genital herpes by being in a long term mutually monogamous relationship with a partner who is not infected with the virus and by using condoms correctly every time you have sex. Be aware, however, that not all herpes sores occur in areas that are covered by a condom. Also, the herpes virus can be shed from areas of the skin that do not have a visible sore.
Many people who have genital herpes have no symptoms or very mild symptoms. Symptoms can even be mistaken for another skin condition such as a pimple or ingrown hair. Herpes sores usually appear as one or more blisters on or around the genitals, rectum or mouth. The blisters break and leave painful sores that can take a week or more to heal. When a person has a sore or sores it is called “having an outbreak”. The first time a person has an outbreak other symptoms may be present like fever, body aches, or swollen glands. When a person has an outbreak it is possible to transfer the infection to another part of the body. It is important to avoid touching these areas and if you do touch the sores, you should immediately wash hands thoroughly to help avoid spreading the infection.
Testing for herpes can be done by taking a sample from an open sore. In certain situations, a blood test may be done to look for herpes antibodies. Talk to your healthcare provider to see if testing is indicated.
There is no cure for herpes but medication is available that can prevent or shorten outbreaks. Medication can also be taken daily to make it less likely to pass the infection to a sex partner.