More than 50 percent of the adult population in the United States has oral herpes (commonly called cold sores or fever blisters). We tend to talk about herpes in hushed tones, as if having herpes is somehow a badge of shame. But this viral infection is incredibly common, not a big deal at all from a health standpoint, and best of all, it can be effectively treated. Herpes is a common viral infection that is spread through skin-to-skin contact. Herpes outbreaks usually show up as one or more little sores on the mouth, genitals or anus. A herpes infection is often so mild that there are no obvious symptoms. There are two types of herpes: herpes simplex type 1 (HSV-1) and herpes simplex type 2 (HSV-2). We used to think of HSV-1 as the cold sore virus, and HSV-2 as the genital herpes virus, but we now know that this is not true. Either type can be in either location. Most people get herpes on the mouth through non-sexual contact during childhood, such as a kiss from a relative. However, it is also possible to get herpes on the mouth through oral sex. Herpes on the genitals or anus is usually caused by sexual contact.
- A cold sore is a group of tiny, painful blisters caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). They’re also called fever blisters or herpes simplex labialis. Up to 90% of people around the world have at least one form of HSV. You catch HSV when you come into contact with people or things that carry the virus. For instance, you can get it from kissing someone who has the virus or from sharing eating utensils, towels, or razors.
- Genital herpes is a contagious sexually transmitted infection (STI). People with genital herpes develop painful blisters on their genitals. Blisters sometimes form on or inside the anus. These infections can clear up and then return months or years later. The herpes simplex virus (HSV) causes genital herpes. HSV spreads through vaginal, oral and anal sex. You can also get HSV from kissing or close (skin-to-skin) contact with someone who has open sores.
What Are The Signs & Symptoms?
While some people realize that they have genital herpes, many do not. It is estimated that one in eight persons in the United States has genital herpes, but as many as 90 percent are unaware that they have the virus. This is because many people have very mild symptoms that go unrecognized or are mistaken for another condition or no symptoms at all. While primary symptoms occur when a person first develops the infection. Alongside sores or blisters, herpes may cause: pain and itching, swollen lymph nodes, a fever, fatigue and a general feeling of being unwell. In most cases, the lesions heal without long-term scarring.
What Are The Causes?
When HSV is present on the skin, it can easily pass from person to person through contact with the moist skin of the mouth and genitals, including the anus. The virus may also spread through contact with other areas of the skin and the eyes. A person cannot contract HSV by touching an object or a surface, such as a washbasin or towel. Infection can occur in the following ways: having vaginal or anal sex without using barrier protection, such as a condom, sharing sex toys, having any other oral or genital contact with a person who has herpes. The virus is most contagious between the time when symptoms first appear and when they heal. Less commonly, a person can transmit the virus when symptoms are not present.
How Is Herpes Being Transmitted?
Herpes is passed by direct skin-to-skin contact between a person who has the herpes virus and a person who does not have the virus. This usually happens with kissing or sexual activity. The herpes virus spreads most easily during an outbreak. If you have itching or tingling in the area where you usually get symptoms, or if you have visible sores, you should not have skin-to-skin contact with that area until the skin is completely healed and feels normal again.
There is no treatment that can eradicate (cure) infection with herpes viruses, but there are several antiviral treatments to treat herpes. They work by reducing the amount of viral replication while you are taking them. The most commonly used treatments are aciclovir, valacyclovir and famciclovir. The best strategy for managing herpes may change over time depending on how frequently you have outbreaks, the severity of symptoms, and your sexual activity. Some people take antiviral medications on an as-needed basis when an outbreak occurs, called episodic therapy. Other people who experience more frequent or severe outbreaks may take antiviral medications daily, on an ongoing basis to prevent outbreaks. This is called suppressive therapy. There are things you can do to help lessen the discomfort of an outbreak even without medications. These can be particularly helpful during an initial or severe outbreak. Taking painkillers or applying a topical anaesthetic, such as lidocaine, may be helpful. Using petroleum jelly on the blisters, bathing the affected area in salty water, or applying an ice pack or cold wet teabags, may also help. (Do not put ice directly on your skin.) Pouring water over your genitals while peeing can reduce the pain. Avoid tight clothing and drink plenty of fluids.
Herpes sores can be uncomfortable and most wish to prevent them altogether. When you have an outbreak, you’re more likely to pass herpes to a partner, meaning you should avoid kissing and sex until the outbreak is over — and that’s no fun for anybody. There can be a lot of shame and stigma around herpes. For some people, finding out they have herpes can stir up intense feelings, such as anger, fear, hopelessness or depression. If you are feeling like this, remember that you are not alone and that your value as a person has not changed. It is okay to have these feelings, but if they are overwhelming, are going on for months, or are interfering with your everyday life, you may find counselling helpful.
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