- Caused by a virus called Herpes Simplex Virus, or HSV
- Two types: HSV-1 (usually around the mouth) and HSV-2 (usually around the genitals)
- About 1 in 5 people have genital herpes
- Herpes can be treated, but not cured
- Having herpes sores can increase your chances of getting HIV
How do you get it?
Genital herpes is passed through vaginal, anal, oral sex, or skin-to-skin contact with infected areas. The virus can be found in skin or mucous membranes in the mouth or genital areas. Herpes sores are infectious, but the virus can be passed even when there are no visible sores. HSV-1 generally causes sores on, around, or inside the mouth (cold sores), while HSV-2 generally causes sores on, around, or inside or the genitals. However, either type of HSV can infect either area. For example, HSV-1 sores around the mouth area can be passed to the genitals during oral sex. A pregnant woman with herpes can also pass the virus to her newborn infant during childbirth.
At least 50% of people with herpes never notice any symptoms, but they can still pass herpes to a sex partner. If symptoms occur, they may appear 2 days to 3 weeks after contact with the virus. In some cases, symptoms may not appear until years later. The most common symptoms are small, painful blisters or sores on, around, or inside the penis, vagina, anus, or mouth. The first herpes outbreak is the most severe and most infectious, and may also include flu-like symptoms such as headaches, body aches, swollen glands, or fever. The sores usually crust over and heal in 2 to 3 weeks. However, the virus remains in the body for life and sores may reappear later. Later outbreaks are often less severe, usually lasting 1 to 2 weeks. Some people have frequent outbreaks, while others may have very few outbreaks or none at all.
In some cases, the blisters and sores may become infected making it harder to heal. Eye infections can develop from touching the eye immediately after touching a sore. If a pregnant woman has an active outbreak when giving birth, herpes can be passed to the baby. Babies born with herpes are at risk for brain and liver damage, lung inflammation, and blood clot problems.
The best time to test for herpes is when a visible herpes sore is present. Go to a doctor or clinic for testing before sores have crusted over. A swab is taken from the sore and tested for the virus. A blood test is also available to test for herpes, but it does not distinguish accurately between HSV-1 and HSV-2. Since most adults have been exposed to HSV-1 (which usually infects the mouth area), a positive blood test may not mean that you have genital herpes.
There is no cure for herpes. However, there are prescription medicines which can reduce the pain and length of outbreaks. The drugs are taken at the first sign of an outbreak. People who have frequent and severe outbreaks may be given daily doses of medicine to reduce the number of outbreaks.
Latex condoms offer some protection against herpes, but may not cover all affected areas. If you or your partner have gentital herpes, it is best to avoid sex when symptoms are present, and to use latex condoms between outbreaks. Pregnant women with herpes should seek prenatal care early and tell their doctors that they have herpes.
For herpes support, counseling, and social networking, contact Los Angeles HELP at 1-310-845-6656 or www.lahelp.org
For information on free and low cost STD testing and treatment services in Los Angeles County, call the STD Hotline at 1-800-758-0880 or visit our STD Testing & Services section.