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Genital Herpes Health Center

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Frequently Asked Questions About Genital Herpes

  • Could I have genital herpes and not know?
  • Answer:

    Yes. Unless no one has ever kissed you, and unless you've never had sex, it is possible that you've picked up an oral or genital herpes virus.

    Oral herpes, usually caused by the herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1), shows up as cold sores or fever blisters on the mouth. Even a casual peck on the lips from someone with a cold sore can give you the virus. That's why it's so common: As many as 50% to 80% of adults in the U.S. have oral herpes.

    Genital herpes, most often caused by the second type of herpes virus (HSV-2), is less common, but plenty of people still have it. Roughly one in five American adults has genital herpes. But up to 90% of those who have it don't know they are infected. You could be one of them.

  • What are some signs that I might have genital herpes?
  • Answer:

    Often it's hard to tell if you have genital herpes by looking. The textbook symptom of genital herpes is a cluster of small fluid-filled blisters that break, forming painful sores that crust and heal during several days. Affected areas include the penis, scrotum, vagina, vulva, urethra, anus, thighs, and buttocks.

    But many people with genital herpes don't get these sores. Some people have no symptoms at all, while others get symptoms that can be easily mistaken for razor burn, pimples, bug bites, jock itch, hemorrhoids, an ingrown hair, or a vaginal yeast infection.

    After you're infected with genital herpes, the symptoms go away, but can flare up from time to time. Luckily, the first outbreak usually is the worst. And some people may have just one or two outbreaks in their lifetime.

  • Is there a test for genital herpes?
  • Answer:

    Yes, there are several tests for genital herpes. A doctor can take a sample from what appears to be a herpes sore and send it to a lab for evaluation. You can also have a blood test. The blood test looks for antibodies to the virus that the immune system would have made when you were infected. HSV-2 almost always infects the genitals, so if antibodies to HSV-2 are detected in your blood, you probably have genital herpes. It is difficult to tell from the blood test when you were first infected with HSV, however.

    A blood test that shows antibodies to HSV-1 means you could have genital or oral herpes. That's because oral herpes, typically caused by HSV-1, can be spread to the genitals during oral sex.

  • If I don't have genital herpes now, how can I avoid it in the future?
  • Answer:

    The only sure-fire way to avoid getting genital herpes is to abstain from sex or have sex only with someone who is also herpes-free. Short of that, a latex condom offers some protection if it covers the infected area. Remember, you can get genital herpes by receiving oral sex (fellatio, cunnilingus, analingus) from someone with a cold sore on the mouth. Likewise, you can get oral herpes from someone's genitals by way of oral sex. Keep in mind that your partner can be contagious even without visible sores. 

    If you know that a sex partner has genital herpes, you can reduce your risk by having sex (vaginal, anal, or oral intercourse) only when he or she has no symptoms. Nevertheless, genital herpes can be contagious even when there are no visible symptoms, so you should always use a latex barrier, such as a condom or a dental dam.

  • What's the big deal? Can genital herpes kill you?
  • Answer:

    Genital herpes is very rarely life threatening in and of itself. But having herpes sores makes it easier for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, to enter the body. Not only is there an increased risk for getting HIV if you have genital herpes, but having the two diseases together may also make each one worse.

    A pregnant woman can pass genital herpes on to her baby, so it's particularly serious during pregnancy. If you get infected near the end of pregnancy, the risk is highest. At least 30% and as many as 50% of newly infected pregnant women give the virus to their babies. For moms who were infected long before delivery, the risk is much lower. Less than 1% of babies born to mothers with an older genital herpes infection get the virus. And if a woman has an outbreak at delivery, a cesarean delivery is usually done.

    Genital herpes is a lifelong condition for which there is no cure. Having it can force you to make inconvenient changes in your life, particularly in your sex life, and it can cause a lot of pain and discomfort. You simply would rather not have it.

  • If I continue to have sex, will I infect my partner with genital herpes?
  • Answer:

    It's certainly possible. You can reduce the risk to a partner by having sex only when you have no symptoms of genital herpes. However, the virus can still be contagious without any noticeable symptoms such as sores or a rash on the skin. That's why you should always use a latex condom. A condom does not completely eliminate the risk, because it may not cover an affected area, but it does offer some protection.

    Taking antiviral medications acyclovir (Zovirax), Valtrex, and Famvir can make symptoms appear less often and make them less severe. There is some evidence that these drugs also may protect against transmission.

  • Is there any way to get rid of the genital herpes virus?
  • Answer:

    There is no cure for herpes. Unless scientists find one in the future, you will always have the virus. But taking antiviral drugs can help manage your condition. Ask your doctor about treatment options.

  • How often will I have symptoms of genital herpes?
  • Answer:

    That depends on the type of herpes virus you have. After being infected, people with herpes simplex virus-1 (HSV-1) tend to have far fewer and less severe outbreaks than those infected with herpes simplex virus-2 (HSV-2). Both types can cause genital herpes. Many people never have symptoms, and don't even know they are infected.

    In those who do have symptoms of genital herpes, how often they will appear and how long they will last varies greatly from person to person. Stress, illness, menstruation, and various other things can trigger a flare-up.

  • Should I tell my partner I have genital herpes?
  • Answer:

    You should tell any sex partner that you have genital herpes. It's important to learn all you can about genital herpes and share that information. Then you and your partner can make an informed decision about sex. Tell a partner that there is always a chance of getting the virus from you, but that there are ways to reduce the risk, such as using latex condoms and avoiding sex when you have symptoms.

    There are plenty of reasons why you should communicate openly. Your partner may have infected you, and he or she should know. It may also help the relationship in the long run. Your partner is likely to appreciate honesty.

    When breaking the news, explain how common genital herpes is: About one in five adults in the U.S. are infected. You can say it's like having cold sores on the mouth (which 50% to 80% of all adults in the U.S. have), except the virus has infected the genitals. It will also help if you're calm when talking to your partner and approach the discussion with a positive attitude.

    If you were sexually intimate with your partner before you were diagnosed with genital herpes, he or she should also be tested for the virus.

  • Where can I find support for living with genital herpes?
  • Answer:

    Many resources are available for people living with genital herpes. A good place to start is the CDC National STD/HIV Hotline: 800-227-8922. Also, talk to your doctor about any concerns you have.

  • How likely is it that I've been infected by genital herpes, too?
  • Answer:

    Whether or not your partner has infected you with genital herpes depends on whether you have always practiced safe sex, for one thing. Also, it may depend on how long you've been sexually intimate with each other.

    If you've had sex only once or twice, and if you used a condom each time, the risk of getting genital herpes is lower than if you've had unprotected sex for a long time. But you could have been infected during any one encounter.

    Don't think you're in the clear because you've never seen herpes sores on your partner's genitals or your own. The symptoms of genital herpes are often subtle and easily mistaken for something else, like bug bites, pimples, razor burn, or hemorrhoids. What's more, the virus can be contagious even when there are no symptoms.

  • How can I protect myself from genital herpes if we keep having sex?
  • Answer:

    While no genital herpes prevention method short of abstinence is 100% effective, using a latex condom offers some protection. Your partner should tell you when symptoms flare up, which is when the virus is most contagious. Avoid sex when your partner has symptoms.

  • How can I find out if I've been infected with genital herpes?
  • Answer:

    Go to your doctor and get tested for genital herpes. A doctor may take a sample from what appears to be a genital herpes sore and send it to a lab for evaluation.

    You can also have a blood test for genital herpes. The blood test looks for antibodies to the virus that the immune system would have made when you were infected. The second type of herpes simplex virus, HSV-2, almost always infects the genitals, so if antibodies to HSV-2 are detected in your blood, you probably have genital herpes. A blood test that shows antibodies to the other type of herpes virus, HSV-1, means you could have genital or oral herpes. That's because oral herpes, typically caused by HSV-1, can be spread to the genitals during oral sex.

  • Will my partner have major health problems because of genital herpes?
  • Answer:

    The biggest impact of genital herpes is usually emotional. Painful symptoms, limitations on sexual activity, and that it's an incurable, lifelong condition can lead to depression. If your partner is pregnant or trying to get pregnant, however, genital herpes is a major concern. Her doctor must be made aware of it. Genital herpes is also more serious for people with HIV and other conditions that weaken the immune system.

     

  • What can I do to help my partner with genital herpes?
  • Answer:

    For starters, you can understand that having genital herpes isn't all that unusual. If you were to leave your partner to find someone else, you'd have nearly a one-in-five chance of meeting another man with genital herpes, or about a one-in-four chance of meeting another woman who is infected.

    If your partner isn't coping well, you may want to suggest joining a support group. If you think genital herpes is harming the relationship, you could try couple's therapy.

  • Could my partner have picked up genital herpes from a toilet seat or hot tub?
  • Answer:

    It's very rare, if not impossible, to get genital herpes any other way than by sexual contact.

    Keep in mind, however, that many people have genital herpes for years or even decades without knowing it. When they are diagnosed, their monogamous partners often assume they were unfaithful, which may not be true.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Debbie Bridges, MD on August 06, 2012

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