If you have anxiety about whether or not you have herpes, or if you have herpes and have anxiety about telling a prospective partner, a simple Google Image search will increase that anxiety at least tenfold.
The problem with these pictures of herpes is that they are the most extreme cases, and do not give an accurate representation of a herpes lesion. Looking at these images won’t give you any more information, but will give you so much more anxiety.
So what does a herpes lesion look like? A herpes lesion generally looks like a small blister or group of blisters that forms, then breaks open. The resulting sore takes one to two weeks to heal. This sore may sting and is generally uncomfortable. A herpes lesion in the genital region can form anywhere on the genitals, including on butt cheeks, near the anus, on vaginal lips, in the vaginal canal, on the penis, scrotum or on the inner thighs. However, herpes symptoms vary widely from person to person. Some people have symptoms so mild that they don’t notice them, or mistake them for another condition, like an insect bite, an ingrown hair, “jock itch,” or a yeast infection. Some people have very severe symptoms which are extremely painful and include itching, burning, stinging and tingling. Some symptoms which might occur in conjunction with the “classic” symptoms of blisters are flu-like symptoms such as fever and swollen glands. Some people will have painful urination or tingling or soreness in the area before a blister appears. How can you know if you have a herpes lesion? The only way to know for sure is to get tested.
Most people experience their first herpes symptoms between 2 and 14 days after their first exposure. Subsequent outbreaks can then happen at regular intervals or randomly. Many people who have had herpes for a while notice patterns or triggers for their herpes symptoms, and can even come to predict when an outbreak is going to occur. Some believe that stress, certain foods or certain activities increase the likelihood of a herpes outbreak.
The unfortunate news is that herpes symptoms and outbreaks will vary widely for each person. The less unfortunate news is that, for those who are infected, herpes does not affect the immune system. It is rare that adults will have any health problems due to herpes, beyond the discomfort of occasional outbreaks. However, it is important to note that having genital herpes makes it easier to acquire and/or transmit HIV.
The herpes symptom “life cycle” consists of a prodrome period, when the herpes virus (which lies dormant in a bundle of nerves at the base of the spine), wakes up and travels to the surface of the skin. This can cause the tingling or tenderness in an area where a herpes blister might form. If a blister forms, it will break open and form a lesion which will scab, then heal. The number of herpes outbreaks average 4-5 per year for most people. Repressive therapies, which will be discussed in the next blog post, can help lessen the number of outbreaks.
Herpes can be transmitted at any point that the virus is not dormant. During the prodrome period, and during an active outbreak the virus can be spread by skin to skin contact. It is possible for the virus to spread from the affected area to any skin, but it is most common that the virus is spread from genital to genital or mouth to genital contact. Additionally, even if no lesions or other symptoms are present, the virus could be shedding without symptoms (asymptomatic shedding) and transmission can occur. Because the herpes virus can be shed with no visible symptoms, and because it is spread by skin to skin contact, it is very common. In fact, the American Social Health Administration estimates that 1 in 5 adults has genital herpes and that 90 percent of those who have the virus are unaware that they have it.
However, like we noted above, herpes is uncomfortable and inconvenient, but it doesn’t cause any damage to the immune system and, for the most part, adults will not have any adverse health effects from a herpes infection. It is important, though, to pay attention to any symptoms that might be herpes and have any suspected lesions or areas swabbed and tested for herpes. Knowing whether or not you have herpes allows you to make sensible and informed decisions about sexual activity and allows you to tell your partners so they can make sensible and informed decisions as well.
Although condoms aren’t 100 percent effective at stopping herpes transmission, condoms do reduce transmission between outbreaks. When an outbreak occurs or when an outbreak is suspected, couples should abstain from having genital-to-genital or mouth-to-genital contact during these times to reduce the risk of transmission. Other forms of sex that don’t include skin-to-skin contact can be enjoyed during this time, such as dry humping with clothing on or mutual masturbation.
If you think you might have a herpes lesion, go to your doctor or a testing clinic as soon as you can for the most accurate results. If you have questions about where to find herpes testing, give us a call at 800-777-2437.
For additional information on herpes, see these resources below:
Comprehensive and credible information on herpes can be found on the American Social Health Administration website at http://www.ashastd.org/herpes/.
To hear Dr. Anna Kaminski from Planned Parenthood and Dan Savage talk about herpes on one of his podcasts, visit http://www.thestranger.com/SavageLovePodcast/archives/2010/07/13/savage-love-episode-195 to listen.