How do I know if I have herpes? What is herpes?
Herpes is a common viral infection in the United States. Roughly one of every five Americans over 18 has been exposed to the genital herpes virus. Most people don't know they have the virus. Herpes is a viral infection, manifested on the skin, caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). There are two types of herpes virus: HSV-1 and HSV-2. HSV-1 usually causes infections such as "cold sores" or "fever blisters" on the lips. Most of the time HSV-2 causes genital herpes. But either type of herpes can cause an infection of the mouth, genitals, or other body parts. Herpes is spread by direct skin-to-skin contact with an infected person. You can get herpes from someone who has sores on any part of his/her body, most often the lips, skin or genitals. Most of the time, however, herpes is spread when someone does not have any visible signs or symptoms. The herpes virus can still rub off (also known as "shedding") a person's skin even there are no visible sores that you can see. It's important to remember that you can catch herpes from a person who doesn't have any sores or symptoms, and if you have the herpes virus you can give it to others even if you have no visible sores or symptoms.
What are the signs and symptoms of herpes?
If someone says, "I know I don't have herpes because I have no symptoms," this may be incorrect. Only about half the people who have herpes show any visible signs or symptoms. Those who do show symptoms usually have an outbreak within within two or three weeks of being infected with the virus. The first symptoms of herpes are usually the worst and most distressing. This is called "primary herpes." Signs and symptoms may include:
- A headache, fever, and muscle aches. A few days later, painful blisters and/or skin ulcers can appear where you were infected. This can be your mouth, genitals, anus and/or buttocks.
- Sores and blisters will usually appear on both sides of the genitals during the first outbreak
- Blisters may be "hidden" (invisible) in your anus or vagina.
- About a week after the skin rash, swollen and tender glands, or swollen lymph nodes may appear in your genital or groin area
- The second time you have symptoms, or an "outbreak," they will usually be less painful and not be as severe as the first time. Subsequent outbreaks, or recurrences, of herpes will often start with a burning and itchy feeling one to three days before a visible skin rash begins
- The sores of recurrent herpes usually only appear on only one side of your genitals
Is herpes just a rash?
The most severe complication of herpes can happen when a woman passes the virus to her baby during birth/delivery. If a birthing mother has herpes and the infant becomes infected, it is very serious and requires immediate medical attention. Herpes infection in infants often causes the baby to die or suffer mental retardation and possible blindness. Although the problem is very serious, it is usually rare and often happens when a woman catches herpes for the first time near her delivery date. If the mother has a genital herpes outbreak when she goes into labor, she may require a C-section (Cesarean delivery). Urinating can be very painful if you have blisters or sores on your vulva (the external area of the female genitals). You may be able to ease your symptoms and be more comfortable if you sit in a bathtub of warm water and urinate into the bath water. In rare cases a first outbreak of herpes can cause the nerves to your bladder to become irritated and inflamed. If this occurs you may not be able to urinate properly. This is usually a temporary issue, but you should always see a doctor.
How can I know for sure if I have herpes?
If your partner has herpes or you have any blisters, sores, or sensitive/red areas on your genitals you should see a doctor for an exam. The doctor will use a swab on the area to test for the virus. If you don't have any visible symptoms, a blood test can show if you have or have been exposed to the herpes virus.
How do I know if I have herpes: Is there a cure?
No. Herpes is a lifelong infection that cannot currently be cured. It will never leave your body, although take heart, because symptoms usually improve over time. Although there is no cure, antiviral medications such as Valtrex can help:
- Treat the symptoms
- Lower your chances of having an outbreak
- Lower the number of times you shed the virus without knowing it
- Prevent you from having the symptoms again
- Acyclovir (ay sye klo veer) which is also called Zovirax
- Famcyclovir (fam sye klo veer), also called Famvir
- Valacyclovir (val a sye klo veer) or Valtret
These work best if you take them at the first sign of itching or burning, before blisters or sores appear. Another method of taking them is to take a small dose each day. Acyclovir is given to newborns who are at risk or infected during birth.
What should I tell my partner(s)?
Because herpes is a sexually transmitted disease (STD), your sex partners should be always checked for symptoms by a doctor. Remember, many people don't have any visible signs or symptoms but may still carry the herpes virus. Remember that your partners still need to be checked for other types of infections and STDs. Because herpes is a lifelong infection, it is important to communicate openly and honestly with your partners.
When can I have sex again?
If you suspect you might have herpes you should not have sex until you see a doctor. You should not have vaginal, oral, or anal sex when you have blisters or sores. Similarly, you should not have any kind of sex if you think you might be having an outbreak. Remember: you can pass the virus to your partners even when you do not have symptoms. You should always tell your current and future partners that you have herpes. Always check with a doctor before having sex with a partner to get advice on how to be safe.
How can I prevent myself from getting herpes?
Not having sex (abstinence) is the only certain method to avoid infection. To lower your risk of giving or getting herpes, use latex or polyurethane condoms (not sheepskin) every time you have any kind of sex including oral, vaginal or anal sex. Using condoms properly each time you have sex can reduce the risk of getting genital herpes. However, using condoms does not totally prevent giving or getting herpes because herpes is spread through skin-to-skin contact from blisters, sores, ulcers, OR infected skin that may look normal. Condoms also help prevent the spread of other STDs including HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. If you are sexually active, you and your partner should see a doctor for a full physical checkup including blood tests for all STDs. Among others, STDs to check for include chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, herpes, genital warts, trichomoniasis, and HIV.
I'm very upset to think that I might have herpes, who do I talk to about this?
Herpes is a very serious issue, and contracting any disease can be extrememly upsetting. Remember though, you are not alone. You may consider getting counseling or joining a support group to help you cope with having herpes.