When you think of herpes, you probably think of the well-known symptoms like genital sores and pain. You probably also think about the stigma surrounding the disease. But did you know it’s actually super common — and that many people with herpes don’t even know how they got it? Here are five things you need to know about herpes.
There are eight types of the herpes virus
That includes virus types that cause mononucleosis, shingles, and the better-known cold sores and genital sores. Herpes simplex virus 1 (HSV-1), or oral herpes, is most likely to be spread by sharing things like utensils, razors, and towels with someone who has an active lesion on the mouth, as well as oral sex. Herpes simplex virus 2 (HSV-2) is what we know as genital herpes, and it’s mostly spread through sexual contact.
A lot of people have HSV-2
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention place the number somewhere around 15.7 percent among people 14 to 49 years old, affecting 20.3 percent of women and 10.6 percent of men. But it’s likely that’s a conservative estimate because you can also contract genital herpes by receiving oral sex from someone with HSV-1.
And a lot of people don’t know they have it
Not everyone experiences symptoms, which can include blisters around the genitals that turn into painful sores. The first outbreak of symptoms can also come with fever, body aches, and swollen glands. But the CDC says most people with genital herpes have no symptoms whatsoever or symptoms so mild that they can easily be mistaken for a pimple or ingrown hair. Those who tend to have noticeable and painful outbreaks can take antiviral medications to suppress the outbreaks or relieve the symptoms.
It doesn’t affect your health in most cases
A genital herpes outbreak can be painful, and revealing that you have genital herpes to potential sexual partners is difficult for many people. But when it comes to how it actually affects your health, there are only a few cases in which that’s a major concern. It can be dangerous if you have sex with someone who has HIV, since breaks in the skin or mucous membranes can make it easier to acquire the infection. And it can be dangerous for pregnant women and their babies, since it can be passed from mother to baby during childbirth with potentially fatal consequences. That said, routine screening for HSV-2 isn’t recommended when you’re pregnant, but you can work with your doctor to figure out a plan and precautions you can take if you think you or your partner may have the virus. Day-to-day, it won’t affect your health (just your comfort level if you have a painful outbreak).
There’s no cure yet – but there are some precautions you can take
There’s some promising research on possible cures (like a broad-spectrum antiviral solution). But whether you’re trying to avoid passing herpes to a partner or acquiring it in the first place, the only surefire way is abstinence. Latex condoms will reduce your risk but not eliminate it since the virus can shed from areas not covered by a condom, and you can avoid having sex with someone who’s symptomatic (plenty of people with genital herpes won’t be). If you do contract it (or know someone who has), remember that the stigma is undeserved — having herpes doesn’t necessarily mean that you had unsafe sex, slept with someone who lied about having it, or can’t live a totally normal life.