What is Herpes (Also Known as the Herpes Simplex Virus or HSV)?

Herpes is caused by a virus that can be passed from person to person via skin to skin contact. Herpes can cause painful blisters or open sores on the lips, mouth, genital area (vulva, vagina, butt, anus, thighs, penis, scrotum), and less commonly, can spread to other parts of the body. Some people do not know they have herpes because they have never had any symptoms. When herpes appears on the skin, this is often called an “outbreak.”

Herpes outbreaks sometimes start with the sensation of numbness, tingling, itching, or pain, before blisters or sores appear. Many people have events or “triggers” that can make an outbreak more likely to happen. Some triggers include getting sick, feeling stressed, exposure to sunlight, and menstrual periods.

What is the Difference Between Herpes Type 1 (HSV-1) and Herpes Type 2 (HSV-2)?

Herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) and herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2) are both common viral infections. A swab or blood test can be used to diagnose the type of infection a person has.

Herpes type 1 more commonly affects the lips and mouth and herpes type 2 more commonly affects the genitals and anus. However, both types can cause oral or genital infections.

How to Prevent the Spread of Herpes to a Partner:

Herpes is most commonly spread during an outbreak when there are visible blisters or sores on a person’s skin. Herpes can be present on the skin even without causing any symptoms. It is also possible to spread herpes in times where you do not have symptoms.

How to help prevent the spread of herpes:

  • Keep open communication with sex partner(s) about your history of herpes
  • Do not have sex when you have symptoms – oral or genital

  • Use condoms every time you have sex (oral and penetrative sex)

  • Take a daily medication to suppress symptoms (talk to Choix medical providers or your local medical provider to see if this a good option for you)

How is Herpes Treated?

There is no cure for herpes, but there are medications that a person can take to help reduce or prevent the symptoms of herpes. Some patients choose to take medications as needed at the start of an outbreak to reduce symptoms. Some patients choose to take a daily medication to prevent outbreaks or to help prevent them from passing herpes to their sexual partners.

A person’s first herpes outbreak is usually the most uncomfortable and can last 2 to 4 weeks. In most cases, herpes causes the most outbreaks during the first few years after a person has become infected and symptoms decrease or disappear over time. After the initial outbreak, there is a lower risk of having an outbreak return with genital herpes type 1 than there is with type 2. However, there is no way of knowing how often or when symptoms will return with either type.

Other options for care during a herpes outbreak include taking over the counter medications to reduce pain like Ibuprofen or Acetaminophen (consult your medical provider before use), using warm water in a regular or portable (sitz) bath for 20 minutes to soothe to the skin (avoid irritating soaps or bath products), and avoid tight clothing or irritating materials.

Pregnancy and Herpes

If you are pregnant and have genital herpes, talk to your medical provider. It is possible to pass genital herpes to a baby during childbirth and your provider may be able to prescribe medication to prevent this from happening.

How is Genital Herpes Diagnosed?

Herpes can be diagnosed in a few different ways. A medical provider can examine your skin if you are having sores or blisters and they can swab the skin to collect fluid or cells to send to a lab for testing.

A medical provider may do a blood test even if you do not have current symptoms to see if you have been exposed to the herpes virus. The CDC does not recommend routine screening for herpes infection with blood tests.

Should I Get a Blood Test to Check for Genital Herpes?

Genital herpes is a very common sexually transmitted infection, but it is not currently recommended that people get tested if they have never had symptoms of genital herpes. Even though a person can get herpes from someone who is not showing symptoms of herpes (no visible sores or blisters), testing is not recommended for the following reasons:

  • Blood tests cannot tell you if you will ever get symptoms of herpes – some people will test positive and never have a herpes outbreak.
  • Blood tests positive for herpes type 1 cannot tell a person if they were exposed to oral herpes (cold sores) or if they were exposed to genital HSV.
  • There is a high “false-positive” rate when screening patients without symptoms, which means that a test may show that you are positive for herpes even if you do not have it.
  • Having a positive test for herpes without ever having symptoms can cause a lot of anxiety for patients and put stress on personal relationships.