One in five Americans has genital herpes -- but many don't know it because the symptoms can be mild or even absent. Genital herpes is usually spread by sexual contact and caused by the type 2 herpes virus (HSV-2). However, the type 1 herpes virus (HSV-1), which more commonly causes cold sores, can also infect the genitals -- usually through oral sex.
There's no cure for genital herpes. Once infected, you're infected for life.
Herpes is most often spread from active sores. But you don't have to have a sore to give the virus to another person. Occasionally, an infected person "sheds" infectious virus without obvious signs of an outbreak. That's why it is especially important to get tested -- to help prevent spreading the infection.
If you have been exposed to the genital herpes virus, there are steps you can take to prevent spreading the infection to a sexual partner.
The best way to prevent spread -- short of abstinence -- is to use a condom every time you have intercourse. In addition, some studies indicate that treatment with genital herpes medication may be able to help prevent spread of the infection from partner to partner among monogamous couples.
It's also very important for women to avoid getting a new herpes infection while pregnant. And if a woman is going to have a baby, she should know whether she has genital herpes. It's rare for a mother to give herpes to her newborn -- unless she's having an outbreak of genital herpes during delivery. In this event, a C-section may be necessary.
If you think you may have been exposed to genital herpes via sexual contact, it's a good idea to discuss testing with your doctor.
What does genital herpes testing involve?
When there's a genital herpes outbreak, a doctor can swab the sores to check for the herpes virus. The sooner the swab is taken after an outbreak starts, the better the chances of the test being accurate.
The common way to find out whether you've got the virus is through genital herpes blood tests.
Genital herpes blood tests show whether you have herpes -- and whether it's type 1 or type 2. They can't show where in the body the herpes is likely to break out. But if a test shows that you have herpes type 2, most likely your genitals are infected.
Blood samples are usually used to see if the immune system has produced antibodies against the herpes virus. Results take several days and only tell that you have been exposed to the virus at some point.
Where do I get tested for genital herpes?
It's possible to get genital herpes tests from commercial blood-testing facilities. But it's much better to be able to understand your test results in the context of regular medical care. Talk with your doctor about herpes testing. Many areas also have state or county public health clinics which may be a lower cost alternative.
My genital herpes test is positive. Now what?
There are good treatments for genital herpes. These prescription drugs can prevent or limit outbreaks and can even lower the odds of spreading the infection. And you can take steps -- such as using latex condoms during sex -- to prevent herpes spread.
Many people think their sex lives are over when they find out they have genital herpes. It just isn't so. Honest, frank communication with your sex partner and proper medical care are the key to living with herpes -- and living well.