Herpes is a common sexually transmitted disease that can affect the genitals or the mouth. It is estimated that 1 in 4 adults in America have genital herpes, and a whopping 8 out of 10 have oral herpes. While there is no cure for herpes, treatment options are available to prevent or eliminate outbreaks, though it can still be spread to others even when no symptoms are present. Many more people may carry the herpes virus, but do not know they have herpes because they have never had an outbreak.
Herpes is caused by two different strains of virus – herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) and herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2). Both strains of the virus can cause both genital or oral herpes, but genital herpes is most often caused by HSV-2, while oral herpes is usually caused by HSV-1. Oral herpes presents as a cold sore (sometimes known as a fever blister) somewhere on or near (or sometimes inside) the mouth. Genital herpes symptoms include burning during urination, blisters or open sores that are often itchy and/or painful, and an inability to urinate due to swelling or sores blocking the urethra. Other body-wide symptoms may include swollen or tender glands, chills, headache, fever, and a feeling like you have the flu.
Herpes is easily spread via contact with an infected person. Contrary to popular belief, HSV-1 and HSV-2 can be transmitted both orally and genitally. This means that, while unlikely, it is possible for someone with a “cold sore” to transmit herpes to the genitals, so care should be taken when engaging in contact with anyone who has visible sores in or around their mouth. Herpes can also be spread from a mother to child during childbirth, though it is rare. When sores are present and open or weeping, herpes is more likely to be spread to others, but herpes can be spread whether there is an active outbreak or not. Herpes can infect several areas of the body, including the vagina, penis, anus, eyes and mouth. Rarely, herpes can infect skin that is irritated, burned or cut.
Treatment for herpes involves medications to speed up the healing process of sores and other symptoms, as well as prevent or reduce the number of future outbreaks. There are also remedies that can be used at home to help with symptoms of herpes, such as warm baths, keeping sores dry to aid in healing, cold compresses, and over the counter pain relievers. Wearing cotton clothing is also recommended.
Testing for herpes is available through most clinics and physician’s office, so talk to your doctor right away if you notice symptoms you think may be herpes related.