What is it?
Herpes is a very common STI caused by a virus that causes painful sores, often on the lips or around the genitals. It can be symptomatic (showing symptoms) at times, and asymptomatic (no symptoms) at other times. Whether there are signs of it or not, the herpes virus will always live in the same place on your body.
How do I get it?
It can be passed to another person who has direct contact with an open sore but it can also be passed from person to person before the sore is visible. There are two types of herpes. People often think that the first type affects the mouth and the second type affects the genital area. This isn’t exactly true – both types of the virus can affect the genitals, anus, and mouth and both types of virus can be passed from mouth to genitals/anus.
Having herpes on your mouth does not mean that you also have herpes on your genitals/anus; it must be transmitted through physical contact from one area to another.
What should I be looking for?
Within the first week of getting herpes, you might feel a tingling/itching feeling where the virus has landed. A cluster of tiny blisters may appear and you may get a headache/fever. These blisters will burst, leaving painful sores that last about two to three weeks. These outbreaks will happen every once in a while, mainly occurring when you’re tired or stressed. The first outbreak is always the worst.
It’s important to say that not everyone with herpes will have an outbreak. Some people may have a first outbreak and then never have one again. You should be on the lookout for any sores/bumps/lumps that look like blisters and may be painful to the touch. Even when you don’t have any sores it’s still possible to pass on the virus. Having safer sex (condoms, dental dams) reduces the chances of passing it on. However, keep in mind that a condom only protects the area that it covers.
Canker Sores and Cold Sores – Which ones are Herpes?
Cold sores are painful sores on your lip. They are a form of herpes and are contagious. Canker sores are small whitish ulcers that sometimes appear inside the mouth and under the tongue. They are NOT a form of herpes and are not contagious. However, because viruses can enter the bloodstream through cuts and open sores, be careful to practice safer sex if you have a canker sore in your mouth.
How do I get tested?
To have herpes diagnosed, you need to have visible symptoms. A doctor or nurse practitioner can tell you that you have herpes simply by seeing the lesions, or by swabbing the liquid in the blisters and sending it for a test. No one can tell if you have herpes if you don’t have any symptoms, so if you have an outbreak of sores, don’t wait to go to a clinic!
Can I get rid of it?
There is no cure for herpes. The important thing is to treat your symptoms. There is medication that can be used to minimize the pain of the outbreaks and you might want to wear loose clothing for comfort. There is also medication available to decrease the number of outbreaks you have. It’s important to consider informing anyone you’re having sex with that you carry the virus and to practice safer sex.
While you have sores (on your mouth or your genitals or anus), it’s a good idea to take a break from all sex which might infect another person. Keeping your stress level down and getting as much sleep as possible is also helpful, as is staying out of the sun. Too much sun can activate the virus, causing sores to erupt.
Finally, herpes can cause potentially serious complications for babies born to an infected mother, so it’s important to let your health care provider know if you’re pregnant and have a history of herpes, so that you can minimize the risks.