Herpes is a common viral STI caused by two types of Herpes Simplex Virus HSV I and II. The viruses can cause symptoms such as blisters in the infected area. In the mouth area, the blisters are often called “cold sores” and in the genital area, they are often called “genital herpes.”
HSV I most commonly infects the oral area but can be spread to the genital area through unprotected oral sex. Usually the symptom is a single blister that lasts about 7-12 days.
HSV II most commonly infects the genital area. The symptoms can be more intense than with HSV I; several blisters at a time, redness, pain and tenderness in area, and swollen lymph glands.
How is herpes spread?
- Herpes is spread through direct skin to skin contact with an infected area, usually during oral, anal or vaginal sex.
- It is possible to spread the virus through digital (hands and genitals) and dry (genital to genital ie penis to penis, penis to vulva, vulva to vulva) sex as well
- Both types of the HSV virus can cause blisters in the genitals, so a person with a cold sore may give their partner herpes through oral sex.
Herpes can be passed to a partner even when the infected person does not have an outbreak. This is called “asymptomatic shedding.”
- Most infected people do not know they are infected. An infected person may still pass the virus to a sex partner if the virus is active enough to cause transmission.
- An infected mother can pass it on to her baby during vaginal childbirth.
- Approximately 20% of people in Canada have genital herpes and 50-70% have oral herpes. Many people with oral herpes grow up with the virus and do not even know they are infected.
How do you prevent herpes?
To reduce your risk of herpes:
- Using condoms during vaginal and anal sex can reduce your risk of transmission but the herpes virus can still be spread through contact with an area that is not covered by the condom (scrotum, vulva, buttocks, inner thighs).
- Use condoms and oral dams to reduce transmission during oral sex.
- Antiviral medication can decrease the risk of transmission but are not 100% effective.
- Personal products like razors and sex toys should not be shared.
- During an active herpes outbreak, you should abstain from sexual activity with an un-infected partner as this is when they are most contagious.
Sex partners of infected persons should be aware that they may become infected even with the use of condoms or antiviral medications.
During an outbreak, make sure you are washing your hands regularly to reduce risk of infecting other areas of your body.
Talk about past sexual partners with your current partner(s)
What are the symptoms of Herpes?
About half the people with herpes do not have any symptoms and do not even realize they have the virus.
- Prior to an outbreak, you may experience redness and tingling in the area. Sometimes, a person experiences this without developing a blister afterwards.
- For those who do have symptoms, herpes often appears as small painful blisters or sores.
- Usually the first genital herpes outbreak is more intense than following outbreaks and can be accompanied by flu-like symptoms such as fever, chills, and fatigue.
- The body stores the virus and symptoms can return at any time in the future. The virus is often reactivated and symptoms return if person is sick, stressed, during a menstrual period, or even after being in the sun.
- Some people never get another outbreak of symptoms while others get outbreaks regularly.
What are the risks of untreated herpes?
- The herpes virus stays with you and can cause symptoms such blisters or sores (the symptoms can vary greatly) at any time
- Often, when a person finds out they (or their partner) have herpes, they feel overwhelmed and scared. Herpes can be very well managed and does not mean the end of a person’s sexual life
- An infection in the genital area can cause infection in babies, so a woman experiencing an outbreak near the end of pregnancy will have a caesarian delivery to prevent transmission to the baby.
- Very rarely HSV can cause serious illlness (meningitis or encephalitis).
How does a person get tested for Herpes?
- Herpes is tested by using a swab of the infected area (mouth, genitals) during an outbreak.
- Testing is private and testing by swab is free with a carecard.
- Herpes is difficult to diagnose between outbreaks
How is herpes treated?
- There is no cure for herpes, but most people manage the virus very well by keeping themselves healthy.
- There are antiviral medications available that can shorten and prevent outbreaks.
- Daily medication (“suppressive therapy”) can reduce the risk of transmission to partners.
Where can I get tested for herpes?
- Island Sexual Health clinics in Greater Victoria
- Your local sexual health clinics
- Your local youth clinic
- Walk in clinics
- Family Doctors