Herpes may be more common than you think.
The World Health Organization estimates that globally, 3.7 billion people younger than 50 have oral herpes and 417 million people aged 15-49 have genital herpes.
Dr. Maya Benitez says there has always been a stigma surrounding sexually transmitted diseases, especially herpes.
Stigma aside, it’s stressful to be diagnosed with something with no cure and no direct definitive treatment. And anxiety and stress can trigger outbreaks, says Dr. Benitez.
“It is important for people to learn about the disease and understand it, so that if diagnosed, people will know how to live with it,” she says.
What is herpes?
There are two types of herpes simplex virus (HSV):
- HSV-1 is most often responsible for oral herpes, which can cause cold sores, aka fever blisters, on or around the mouth
- HSV-2 is most often responsible for genital herpes, which is sexually transmitted through skin-to-skin contact
Both are highly contagious.
Many people never have symptoms and it is possible for both HSV-1 and HSV-2 to be transmitted without an outbreak or other visible symptoms.
An outbreak of herpes usually appears as one or more blisters on or around the genitals, rectum, or mouth. The blisters break and leave painful sores that may take a week or more to heal. The first time someone has an outbreak they may also have flu-like symptoms such as fever, body aches, or swollen glands.
How do you get herpes?
Oral herpes can be spread by oral-to-oral contact like kissing or by sharing drinks.
You can get genital herpes by having vaginal, anal, or oral sex with someone who has it. It is also possible to get genital herpes if you receive oral sex from a sex partner who has oral herpes.
The likelihood of contracting herpes from toilet seats, bedding, or swimming pools, or from sharing objects such as silverware, soap, or towels is low, but it is possible, says Dr. Benitez.
While an outbreak isn’t necessary for herpes transmission, herpes is most contagious about 3 days before an outbreak; this usually coincides with an itching or burning sensation or pain in the area where the outbreak will occur.
How to treat herpes
“People often try to Google herpes and read as much as they can on sites that are not credible or confirmed by a professional provider,” says Dr. Benitez. “It’s important to get the right information and not cause undue stress.”
Having a conversation with a primary care doctor is a great place to start understanding herpes, says Dr. Benitez.
A primary care doctor will be able to guide patients through the whole process and create a treatment plan that includes recognizing the symptoms, preventing outbreaks, recommending medication, discussing how to approach their partner or a future partner, and, if it becomes too much of a stressor, help accessing mental health resources.
“Some of these topics may not be covered in one visit with your doctor,” says Dr. Benitez. “You may have to have follow-ups to ensure you are comfortable with the knowledge you’re sharing over your life time and comfortable with the knowledge of the disease that you’re diagnosed with.”