What is herpes?

Herpes is a skin infection caused by two types of Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV). The first type (HSV-1) causes “cold sores” on the mouth, but can also infect other areas including the genitals. The second type (HSV-2) causes painful sores on or around the genitals, but can also infect other areas including the mouth. Both can be spread by sexual contact, but they are different infections with similar symptoms. Many people with genital herpes have no symptoms. Infection with herpes, even without symptoms, makes your body more open to getting infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

Remember: viruses spread wherever and whenever they can.
Sex can spread virus, but sex
does not cause herpes. A virus causes herpes.

How is it spread?

Both types of herpes are easily spread by direct contact (touching) with infected skin or  the mucosa (thin, moist lining) inside the mouth, vagina, or rectum. HSV-2 can spread even if no herpes sores can be seen.

FROM infected skin or mucosa (Vulva, vagina or cervix ; penis or scrotum; Mouth or lips; Anus or rectum ; Other skin)

TO other skin or mucosa (ANYWHERE on a sex partner or to other parts of the infected person).

From skin to skin touching

Herpes can also spread from mother to child during childbirth and can be very dangerous for the newborn. This is most likely to happen in women who are newly infected with herpes late in the pregnancy.

Can it be prevented?

Yes, it can. Prevention means reducing your risk of getting herpes. You can avoid herpes by avoiding direct contact with infected skin just before or during an outbreak. Individuals with herpes can reduce the chance of spreading it to a sex partner by taking antiviral medication. Pregnant women who know they have herpes can also take antiviral medication to reduce the chances of an outbreak during birth. A new vaccine for genital herpes has been found to prevent women (but not men) from getting infected with the virus and may become available in the next few years.

Using condoms will reduce your risk of coming into contact with herpes, but parts of the body NOT covered are NOT protected (scrotum, vulva)
The internal/female condom covers a larger area of the skin and may protect more.

What are the symptoms?

Most people infected with genital herpes (HSV-2) will carry the virus with no symptoms. These people may shed virus from the skin for a few days every year and spread the infection without knowing it.

Within one to three weeks of infection, some individuals will develop clusters of small red bumps wherever the virus entered the body, often accompanied by fever and swollen glands. The bumps burst open and become painful sores that usually take 2 to 4 weeks to heal completely.

After the initial outbreak, the virus hides in the nerves under the skin and may cause outbreaks any time in the future. How often this happens is different for everybody (from never to several times per year), and is influenced by “trigger factors” such as menstruation, emotional stress, having sex, and other infections.

Before an outbreak, people often have warning signs such as burning, itching or tingling.

The first outbreak usually has worse symptoms and lasts longer than recurring outbreaks.

Can it be cured?

No. Once you are infected with genital herpes, you are infected for life. Eating well, exercising and lots of rest will keep your immune system strong and may prevent new outbreaks. Anti-viral medications can also be prescribed to reduce symptoms or reduce frequency of outbreaks.

How can I tell if I am infected?

Genital herpes is often diagnosed by the way the sores look. Since many other sores can look like herpes sores, a swab must be taken from the sore and tested for the virus. A swab is like a thin Q-tip for collecting body fluids. Blood can also be tested for antibodies to the virus. 

What will happen when I go to get tested?

When you go to a doctor or nurse to get tested for sexually transmitted infections (STIs), give as many details as you can so you can get the best care possible. This is what will probably happen:

  • Your genitals may be examined for sores, growths, swelling or discharge.
  • You will be asked for a urine [pee] sample.
  • Swabs may be taken from the vagina, urethra [pee hole], mouth, throat or rectum.
  • A blood sample may be taken to test for Hepatitis B and syphilis.
  • You may be offered HIV testing (usually done separately).

What about HIV?

HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, is also a sexually transmitted infection (STI). It is spread when infected blood, semen [cum] or vaginal fluid [pussy juice] gets into your blood. If you already have an STI such as chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, herpes or genital warts, you may have broken skin, swelling or sores that make it much easier for HIV to get into your body.

Living with Herpes

Be careful not to spread the virus to other parts of your body. Keeping the sores clean and dry and wearing loose clothes and cotton underwear will help them to heal more quickly. Because it is a life-long infection, people with herpes can experience emotional stress, loneliness and depression. People may be afraid of spreading the virus to a sex partner, or fear rejection if they tell their sex partner they have herpes. Good education and counselling is important so individuals can learn to prevent outbreaks from happening and also to manage outbreaks to prevent spread to others.