Herpes may be more common than you think, with around 16% of people aged between 14 and 49 years reportedly carrying the virus. In 2018, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention revealed that more than 572, 000 new cases of genital herpes were reported in the United States, during just a 12 month period.
So, if herpes is a sexually transmitted disease, are you still at risk of catching herpes without having sex? The simple answer – yes.
Although it may be one of the more well-know sexually transmitted infections, it is also one of the most stigmatised conditions. Due to the stigma surrounding herpes, it’s not often a topic that is open for discussion, leaving many people unsure of just how common the virus is, how it’s transmitted, and how it’s treated.
What is genital herpes?
Genital herpes is caused by a strain of the herpes simplex virus (HSV). Oral herpes, often known as cold sores or fever blisters, belong to type 1 of the virus (HSV-1), while genital herpes are associated with the HSV-2 strain.
Unlike oral herpes, genital herpes are identified by painful blisters, sores and inflammation on the skin surrounding the genitals and anus. Other symptoms of genital herpes include an itching sensation and tenderness within the infected area.
What are the symptoms of genital herpes?
Although the herpes virus has a high rate of transmission, there is no known cure. By understanding the symptoms, however, the virus can be a manageable condition for both you and your sexual partner.
Many infected people are unaware that they are carriers of the virus, until they experience their first outbreak. Until this time, the virus stays in the nerve cells of the human body, showing no visible sores or signs of the infection.
While it is more common to catch herpes from someone with visible blisters, transmission can occur from people with no visible sores. This is called asymptomatic shedding.
Most people will experience their first genital herpes outbreak within 14 days of being infected. When the herpes virus enters the stage of an initial outbreak, symptoms may include:
Headache and fever
Tenderness around the genital area
Discomfort when urinating
Itching and tingling around the genitals or anal area
A few days following the initial signs of an outbreak, more noticeable symptoms begin to manifest, such as herpes sores around the genitals, anal area, or thighs.
It is important to note that although most people experience their first outbreak within 2 weeks of being infected, studies have shown that it is possible for others to go months or even years before experiencing an outbreak.
If the virus reactivates in the future, you are likely to have milder symptoms, with most future outbreaks occurring less frequently as time passes.
How is genital herpes transmitted?
Genital herpes can spread not only from contact with visible sores, but through saliva, other bodily fluids and skin to skin contact with someone who is a carrier of the virus. Some of the most common ways that herpes is transmitted include:
Engaging in vaginal or anal sex
Giving or receiving oral sex
Sharing sex toys
Saliva from someone who has oral herpes
Skin to skin contact
Can you get the herpes virus without being sexually active?
Although genital herpes is most commonly transmitted via vaginal, anal or oral sex, someone who is not sexually active is still at risk of contracting the virus.
It is possible for herpes to be passed on via direct contact and kissing, or through indirect contact, such as sharing utensils or lip balm.
Can an infected person still have sex?
Although there is no cure for herpes, people can still engage in sexual activity after being diagnosed. While there will always be a risk of passing the infection on to another person, the use of barrier methods, like condoms, will help to reduce the likelihood.
During an outbreak, when sores are visible, there is a greater chance of spreading the virus. Regardless of whether you have visible symptoms or not, if you have been diagnosed with herpes, it is important to communicate this with any sexual partners.
Risk factors for genital herpes infection
Despite the fact that a herpes infection can spread between people of any age, race, gender or sexual orientation, there are some groups that have a greater risk of exposure and increased severity of symptoms.
Multiple sexual partners
While avoiding sex all together may be out of the question for many people, a person with more than one sexual partner is more likely to come into contact with someone who has a sexually transmitted infection. Genital herpes can be passed on through vaginal, anal or oral sex, so your best bet is to ensure that you are practicing safe sex, in order to minimise your exposure.
Compromised immune system
If you suffer from another illness or compromised immunity, you have an increased risk of contracting genital herpes, cold sores or any other form of sexually transmitted infection. Once infected with genital herpes, people with compromised immune systems are more likely to experience an increased amount of future outbreaks and greater severity of symptoms.
How to reduce your chance of infection and prevent genital herpes
If abstaining from sex really isn’t your thing, there are still a number of steps you can take to reduce your chance of herpes infection.
Promote safer sex
There are a number of approaches you can take when it comes to practicing safer sex. Open communication with your partner is a great starting point, as it allows you both to be honest about your sexual history and provides the opportunity for either party to communicate a known diagnosis of genital herpes.
Remember, herpes is more common that you might think, so be open with your partner to ensure you’re both taking the right measures to stay safe.
Although it’s not a fool proof method, using condoms greatly decreases your risk of spreading or contracting genital herpes. In addition to these steps for safer sex, talk to your doctor or a sexual health clinic about regular checks ups and testing for STIs.
Sanitise when sharing sex toys
Sex toys can offer a pleasurable experience, regardless of your relationship status. If you are sharing your sex toys with a partner or multiple partners, however, it’s important to practice good hygiene to reduce the risk of exposure and keep all parties safe. Genital herpes and other STIs can be spread via saliva and bodily fluids, even on the surface of sex toys.
Treatment options for the herpes simplex virus
While there may be no cure for genital herpes, antiviral medicines can help to relieve symptoms, shorten the length of outbreaks, and promote fewer occurrences in the future. Treatment options are available for both the HSV-1 strain (cold sores) and the HSV-2 strain (genital herpes).
Let’s get your health sorted!
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CDC. (2022) Genital Herpes – CDC Basic Fact Sheet. (https://www.cdc.gov/std/herpes/stdfact-herpes.htm)
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2021) Genital Herpes. (https://www.publichealth.va.gov/infectiondontpassiton/)