Let’s talk about a largely misunderstood virus. No, not THAT virus. I am talking about the Herpes Virus.
As a clinician in Women’s Health, I often get many questions about sexually transmitted diseases and infections. There is a lot of misinformation and false assumptions about herpes that I would like to clarify. Let’s bust some myths!
First of all, the herpes virus actually has TWO types. HSV–1 is usually associated with an oral outbreak and HSV–2 is what we normally associate with a genital outbreak. However, you can get either an HSV–1 or HSV–2 infection genitally. And by genitally, I mean it can be seen on the vulva, in the vagina, or on the penis.
How many people have herpes? Most people are exposed to either one or both of these herpes virus variants over their lifetime. In fact, 50% of people are carriers. What does this mean? It means that half the population has developed antibodies to the herpes virus, and it lives dormant on the ganglions in their nervous system. These people are asymptomatic, and may never even know that they have been exposed. There is an important distinction to be made here between “infected” and “affected.” Someone who is “affected” is someone who is experiencing an outbreak. Someone who is “infected” is someone who has been exposed and has developed antibodies.
How is it transmitted? Most times, someone is exposed to the herpes virus through a partner who is asymptomatic. The virus can shed in an asymptomatic partner and provide a means for transmission. You can get exposed even if your partner is wearing a condom. And obviously, a partner with an active lesion that is open or oozing has a very high likelihood of transmitting the virus. Basically, anyone who is rubbing their genitals closely together can expose one another to the virus. Penetration does not have to occur.
What does a genital herpes outbreak look like? A primary outbreak happens only once when someone is first exposed. It usually is seen as multiple lesions, that can be very painful and may be accompanied by flu-like symptoms and swollen lymph nodes. More commonly however, someone will experience a solitary sore. This usually pops up as a result of stress, in someone who has been previously exposed and in whom the virus was lying dormant.
How do we check for it? Herpes lesions can be cultured directly from the skin, or a blood test can be done for antibodies.
How is it treated? Treatment for the herpes virus is accessible and safe. In times of an outbreak, one can usually take valacyclovir or acyclovir for 5-7 days with minimal risk of side effects. Some people with recurrent outbreaks may choose to use the same medications for suppression.
Is it dangerous? While herpes lesions can be painful, the infection itself is not dangerous. Therefore, it is important to understand that while annoying to have an outbreak, there are no long-term health consequences to living with the herpes virus.
There is a lot more to say about the herpes virus, which has not been covered here. But, what we can conclude is that herpes has gotten a bad rap, that perhaps it does not deserve. Hopefully the points I made here will help you see why this is one virus we should all be less worried about. Especially now.