You just got tested for an STI and found out you have herpes. What do you do now? First you have to figure out how you got it. Herpes Simplex Virus has two types. Type 1 usually causes fever blisters on the mouth or lips but also occurs in the genital region. Type 2 occurs in the genital area only. Both HSV 1 & 2 can be spread in between outbreaks of sores. Someone may not even know they are infected and that is why the infection can spread. You can only get HSV-2 from sexual contact with someone who is infected with HSV-2. You can get an HSV-1 infection from oral-oral, genital-oral or genital-genital contact. Genital HSV 1 outbreaks occur less often the HSV-2. Once you know who gave you HSV you want to inform them so they can be tested and reduce the risk of spreading the infection to others.
Are you the only one? About 16% of Americans are infected with HSV-2. This means about 1 out of 6 people between the ages of 14-49 are infected with HSV-2. More women (1 in 5) than men (1 in 9) have the infection. This is because it is easier to spread herpes to females from a male partner. It is less likely that a female can spread it to a male. Although this does occur, it is less often.
How long will an outbreak last? The first outbreak usually occurs about 2 weeks after being exposed and lasts the longest. One or more blisters will develop and then rupture causing a sore. The sores can then take 2-4 weeks to heal. Some people also develop a fever and have swollen glands during the first outbreak. However, most people don’t ever develop any sores. Or they are so mild that they aren’t noticed or mistaken for another skin condition. A person can go weeks, months or years between outbreaks. If you do develop sores right away after being infected, you can usually expect to have 4 or 5 outbreaks that first year. Outbreaks after the first one are usually less severe and don’t last as long. It is possible that a person becomes aware of a first episode years after getting the infection.
Can I get rid of the virus? There is no cure for HSV. Herpes stays in the body indefinitely. Although outbreaks do occur less often over time. You can also get anti-viral medication that reduces the length and severity of outbreaks and it may also prevent outbreaks while taking the medication. Also, daily suppressive therapy for symptomatic herpes can reduce transmission to partners.
Are there any complications of genital herpes? If you do have outbreaks of sores this can be very painful. It can also cause complications for those who have suppressed immune systems. It may also be dangerous to the baby if contracted during pregnancy. Women who have an active outbreak will have to deliver the baby by cesarean section. Transmission from mother to baby is very rare. HSV-2 can also make people more susceptible to contracting the HIV infection.
Other complications include psychological. Many people with genital herpes feel dirty, contagious, and alone. They now feel like no one would ever want to touch them much less have sex with them again. It can take awhile to actually accept that you have an incurable STI. There is definitely a grief process that takes place. You will go through periods of anger, depression and denial. There will be moments of acceptance, but it takes time to come to terms with the diagnosis. Some people join online support groups for people with HSV-2 and find support through that. If you are feeling overwhelmed and depressed by your diagnosis, please seek help from a counselor or trusted friend who can help you through the grief process.
Not sure if you’ve been exposed to HSV? See your doctor to be tested. If you have sores they will take a sample and test them in a lab. If you don’t have active sores they will do a blood test to see if they can find antibodies.
Want to prevent spreading HSV? The only 100% way to prevent any STI is to abstain from sexual activity or to be in a long-term monogamous relationship with someone who has been tested and is uninfected. To reduce the risk of spreading the infection never have sexual contact with partners during an outbreak. Always use a condom to reduce the risk of spreading the infection when you are between outbreaks. Be aware that if you have HSV it is possible to spread the infection even when you take every precaution. Be open with your partner so they can make an informed decision about the risk they are taking.
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