Published December 21, 2011
Herpes is one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases, but many people who have it do not know they are infected with the virus. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately one in six people between the ages of 14 and 49 have genital herpes. The CDC warns that you can get genital herpes even if your partner shows no signs of infection. There is no cure for the disease, but treatment is available to reduce symptoms and decrease the risk of transmission to a partner.
Herpes, while uncomfortable and highly contagious, is not generally dangerous for most adults. However, herpes infections can cause potentially life-threatening complications in newborn children and people infected with HIV, the CDC warns. For most people, herpes can be mild enough to fly completely under the radar, and symptoms may only appear years after the initial infection. The disease is caused by the herpes simplex virus, which is usually transmitted through sexual contact.
There are two types of herpes infections, both of which cause sores and lesions. The HSV-1 virus typically causes cold sores or fever blisters around your mouth or lip. HSV-2 accounts for most cases of genital herpes. This type is highly contagious through sexual contact, regardless of whether you have an open sore or any symptoms at the time of contact. Both types can be found in either the genital or oral areas.
In many patients, signs of herpes are minor or invisible. The virus typically lies dormant, although it can activate multiple times a year, the CDC said. Symptoms that do become visible appear as blisters or sores, which can feel itchy or painful. Blisters typically occur on or around the genitals or rectum, and when they break open, leaving tender sores. During a person’s first outbreak, the sores may take up to four weeks to heal, according to the CDC. In the first year of experiencing symptoms, outbreaks can recur frequently. However, they eventually become less frequent and less severe over time. Additional signs of herpes can include flu-like symptoms such as fever and swollen glands. Most people with HSV-2 never develop noticeable sores.
HSV-1 and HSV-2 are transmitted through openings in the body. Both types are highly contagious. By the time most Americans reach their 60s, 85 percent of people will have been infected, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center. The virus may enter via broken skin or a mucous membrane, including the mouth or genitals.
HSV-1 is generally transmitted via saliva, so activities such as kissing, eating with the same utensils and sharing personal care items can spread the virus from one mouth to another. The virus can also spread to the genitals through oral sex. HSV-2 is usually transmitted through genital-to-genital sexual contact. Pregnant women may also transmit the disease to their babies during vaginal birth, according to the CDC.
No treatment exists to eradicate herpes from your body. Antiviral medications can mitigate the severity and frequency of outbreaks. Individuals may also use topical antiviral creams or ointments to alleviate their symptoms. While most outbreaks will resolve themselves within two weeks, a few self-care methods can help ease the discomfort caused by open sores. For example, a warm bath may temporarily relieve pain in the genital area.