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What is herpes?

Herpes is a sexually transmitted infection caused by a virus called the herpes simplex virus (HSV). At least 50 million people in the U.S. have genital herpes. It is more common in females than males. There are two types of herpes simplex virus: herpes simplex virus 1 (HSV-1) and herpes simplex virus 2 (HSV-2). HSV-1 usually infects your mouth (called "oral herpes"), but can be passed to the genitals (penis, vagina, or anus) through oral sex. HSV-2 usually infects the area around your genitals (called "genital herpes"), but can also be passed from the genitals to the mouth during oral sex.

How is herpes spread?

While oral herpes can cause genital herpes and genital herpes can cause oral herpes, it is more common for oral herpes to be passed orally and genital herpes to be passed genitally.

Genital herpes can be spread:

  • during vaginal sex (both partners)
  • during anal sex (both partners)
  • from direct genital contact
  • from mother to child during birth
  • during oral sex (from someone's genitals to another person's mouth), (this is rare)

Most people who get oral herpes get it during childhood. Oral herpes can be spread through:

  • kissing
  • oral sex (from someone's mouth to another person's genital or anus)

Herpes can be spread anytime, and not just during an outbreak. No ejaculation or transfer of bodily fluids (like blood, saliva, or vaginal secretions) needs to occur for the virus to spread. Brief skin-to-skin contact is all that is needed to pass the virus.

How can I prevent getting herpes?

Genital herpes: If you choose to have sex, using latex condoms, female condoms, or a dental dam will reduce your risk of getting herpes. Don't touch the sores. Touching any type of herpes sore may spread the virus from one partner to another or from one part of the body to another, especially during initial herpes. Oral herpes: You can reduce your risk of getting oral herpes by not kissing your partner or performing oral sex on ("giving a blow job" or "eating out") your partner while he or she has an outbreak. Using male condoms and dental dams when you perform oral sex will reduce your risk, but you can still get the virus from sores not completely covered by the condom.

If I have herpes, how can I prevent giving it to someone else?

Genital herpes: If you have an outbreak of sores, avoid touching sores during an outbreak, and wash your hands if you do touch them. Do not engage in sexual contact during an outbreak.

Herpes medication can prevent you from spreading herpes. Ask a doctor or other healthcare professional for more information on medication and treatment options.

Oral herpes: You can reduce the chance that you spread oral herpes by not kissing or giving oral sex when you have sores. If you have an outbreak of sores, avoid touching sores during an outbreak, and wash your hands if you do touch them.

Both genital and oral herpes can be spread even when you aren't having an outbreak. They are most likely to be transmitted during or just before an outbreak.

Can I still infect others with herpes if I don't have symptoms?

Yes. You can infect others when you aren't having an outbreak or any other symptoms.

Am I more infectious with herpes at certain times?

You are most likely to spread herpes if you have an outbreak (sores or blisters) and just before and after you have an outbreak. Herpes is most contagious when sores are open, moist, or leaking fluid, until the scabs heal and fall off.

What are the symptoms of herpes?

Herpes can cause many symptoms. The easiest to notice are painful sores or blisters that occur on your mouth ("oral herpes") or near your anus, penis, or vagina (called "genital herpes"). Sores and blisters usually heal within two to four weeks. In some people, these sores can come and go about four or five times a year. The first outbreak is usually the longest and most severe.

Other symptoms for both males and females are:

  • Itching, burning, or tingling at the site where blisters or sores will appear
  • Inability to urinate
  • Pain in affected area
  • Swollen glands (swelling or tenderness near your neck, armpits, or groin)
  • Severe flu-like symptoms such as fever or body aches

What is the treatment for herpes?

There are three medications that can be taken for genital herpes. They are called acyclovir, famciclovir, and valaciclovir.

Treatment of genital herpes can help sores heal faster and reduce your risk of spreading the virus. Medicines can be taken during an outbreak or when you feel one that is about to start. If you have frequent outbreaks, medication can be taken daily to decrease the frequency of outbreaks.

What will happen if I have herpes, but I don't get treated?

If you don't get treated for herpes you may get more frequent outbreaks of sores and have a higher chance of getting an HIV infection (if you have unprotected sex with a person who has HIV). Herpes can spread to other parts of your body. It is rare, but a herpes infection can lead to more serious health issues such as aseptic meningitis (infection of tissues around the brain and spinal cord), encephalitis (swelling of the lower spinal cord), and widespread infection of the liver, lungs, and joints.

How can I get tested for herpes?

You may need to go to a doctor to get tested for herpes, or you can ask for a test at Eastern or Druid clinic if you have symptoms.

If you have sores or blisters, a viral culture or swab test should be done as soon as possible. If you don't have sores or blisters but think you might have herpes, a blood test can be done four weeks after you got infected.