A lot of awkward stuff happens in the bedroom. There’s plenty of fumbling, fidgeting, and (hopefully) fun involved, too. But talking about the less glamorous side of being a sexually active human is often skipped altogether.
Something that is common in life but largely not spoken about is the prevalence of sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
Many will experience an STI at least once in their lifetime and it's important to understand what a diagnosis might mean for you (and your partner). So we're starting with herpes.
What happens when you’re diagnosed with herpes? Is there a cure? And is it possible to still have a healthy (and safe) sex life? In short, herpes is incredibly common and something you can manage — but let's dive a bit more into the medical stuff, first.
What is herpes?
The term might be loaded with shame and stigma, but herpes is actually super common, with 1 in 8 sexually active Aussies said to have genital herpes .
Herpes (known in the medical world as herpes simplex virus, or HSV for short) is one of the most common types of STI, and there are 2 main strains:
- HSV-1: the strain of the virus that commonly causes cold sores on our lips and face (a.k.a. oral herpes)
- HSV-2: the strain of the virus that is largely responsible for genital herpes
But that’s not where the story ends. The truth is that both HSV-1 and HSV-2 can actually cause oral and genital herpes, which can make it tricky to pinpoint exactly what strain of herpes is causing the symptoms to occur .
Regardless of what strain you contract, herpes causes uncomfortable sores and blisters that can be annoying, inflamed, and painful. However, many people don’t notice any symptoms at all, and may only develop symptoms months or even years after contracting the infection .
That’s why tracing the source of the infection can be difficult (and also explains why herpes is such a common STI).
What are the symptoms of herpes?
Alright, so you think you have an ingrown hair or maybe a rogue pimple? While many people won’t notice symptoms for a long time (or will only experience very mild symptoms that are easy to mistake for other things), there are a few common signs that could indicate you have herpes.
Symptoms of genital herpes
- Patches of irritated, itchy or painful blisters on your vagina, vulva, cervix, penis, butt, or even on the inside of your thighs
- Burning when you pee (particularly if urine touches your herpes sores)
- Difficulty urinating due to sores and swelling blocking your urethra
- Itching and general pain near your genitals
For those with genital herpes caused by HSV-2, you might also encounter flu-like symptoms, which include :
- Swelling in your pelvis, throat, and underarms
- Aches, pains, and fatigue
The first time you encounter these blisters is known as your "first episode" and symptoms can last for around 2-4 weeks. But even once the blisters ease, further outbreaks are incredibly common.
In the days or weeks leading up to a herpes 'outbreak’ you might notice symptoms such as itching, burning or tingling around your genitals. The good news? Subsequent outbreaks tend to be shorter and less painful than the first episode.
Symptoms of oral herpes
- Blisters around your lips and surrounding skin
- Blisters inside your mouth
- Gums that are painful or swollen
- Sore or swollen throat
- Bad breath
- Increase in saliva
- Feeling unwell or experiencing flu-like symptoms (such as fevers and headaches)
When it comes to cold sores, these will typically last a couple of weeks and will go away on their own. After the first outbreak, cold sores can recur (often in the same spots) weeks, months or even years down the track.
How do you get herpes?
Whether a person is experiencing an outbreak or not, they have the ability to spread herpes to others. Here’s the thing: once you contract herpes, the virus sticks around in your body for life .
Most of the time, it will lay dominant in your system, but it may occasionally cause flare-ups or outbreaks (causing cold sores or genital blisters).
In the case of oral herpes, the virus is spread by skin-to-skin contact with someone who already has the virus. Some of the most common methods of transmission include:
- Sharing cutlery or cups
- Sharing lip balm
- Performing oral sex
As for genital herpes, this is only spread by having sexual intercourse with someone who has herpes (a.k.a. genital-to-genital contact via oral, vaginal or anal sex).
Genital herpes tends to be most infectious when sores are beginning to develop right through to when scabs go away, but you can still contract the virus even if your infected partner is asymptomatic .
Is there a cure?
Right now, half a billion people across the globe are living with genital herpes (with several billion experiencing oral herpes infections) . Why? Because there isn’t a cure for herpes. And once a person contracts it, they’ll live with the virus in their system for the rest of their life.
The good news is that there are a bunch of antiviral medications that can reduce the severity and frequency of herpes symptoms. There is also a range of treatments that can be helpful during an outbreak, including:
- Salt baths
- Applying local anaesthetic gel to the sores and infected areas
- Taking regular hot baths
- Pain relief medications (such as paracetamol or ibuprofen)
The World Health Organisation is calling for a vaccine to cure herpes and provide long-term relief for this painful, and often recurring, condition. Until then, the best course of action is to manage symptoms as they arise.
How to treat herpes with medication
While there isn't a cure for herpes, there are medications that can help keep symptoms at bay, so you can live your best life without worrying about having a flare-up.
Pilot offers 2 treatment options for herpes, available for both men and women. One is a suppressive therapy that involves daily or proactive medication, which reduces the chances of future outbreaks and minimises the risk of passing it on to a partner. In fact, this medication reduces recurrences by 80% and transmission risk by around 50%.
The second option is outbreak therapy, to treat current flare-ups when they occur. Taken at the first sign, a one-off course of antibiotics shortens the duration of an outbreak, offers fast relief, and lessens the severity of symptoms.
Simply complete Pilot's text-based questionnaire and a local doctor will create a personalised treatment plan based on your individual circumstances, which will then be discreetly delivered to your door.
Living with herpes might feel limiting but thanks to modern medicine, there are ways to treat outbreaks and keep symptoms to a minimum while also reducing the chance of passing the virus onto a partner, so you can continue to have a thriving sex life.
Is it safe to have sex with someone who has herpes?
So, you or your partner has discovered you’ve got herpes.
Before things get hot and heavy, it’s important to understand how to safely navigate sex when dealing with herpes. In fact, herpes doesn’t have to mean an end to your sex life, it just means you’ll have to take a few extra steps and precautions to keep yourself (and your future partners) safe.
It’s impossible to totally eliminate your risk of contracting herpes from an infected sexual partner, but you can take steps to make things as safe as possible .
That means avoiding sex when you (or your partner) are experiencing an outbreak and waiting until symptoms subside before having sex again. And yes, that means every kind of sex (including oral, vaginal, and anal sex) .
Using barrier contraception such as condoms is also a wise move to help lower the risk of transmission during sex (even when symptoms aren’t present). Plus, regularly taking antiviral medications can help lower your partner’s chances of outbreaks occurring too.
How to talk about herpes with your partner
Herpes is shrouded in stereotypes and stigma, but it shouldn’t be. It’s one of the most common STIs and often doesn’t present with symptoms which has aided its rapid spread. While there isn’t a cure yet, the condition is manageable and doesn’t need to spell disaster for your dating life.
But what does need to change is the way we talk about herpes. Contrary to popular misconceptions, it’s got nothing to do with sleeping around. In many cases, symptoms won’t present for months or even years after contracting the virus. But the longer we avoid talking about herpes, the longer sufferers will be forced to navigate the shame of this misunderstood condition.
So, what are the best ways to let your partners know you have herpes?
- Communicate early and don’t wait until you get into bed to have the conversation
- Be open and honest about the situation and explain the risks involved
- Educate them about what a herpes diagnosis means and how you can both navigate sex safely
- Explain your options and chat about what you both feel comfortable doing
The key to navigating this conversation successfully is to be upfront and honest. When it comes to safe sex, making sure you’re both aware of the risks (especially in the case of STIs) means everyone is on the same page. Avoiding the subject or lying about the condition is only going to do more harm than good in the long run.
Having herpes doesn’t have to stop you from dating or having a healthy sex life — it just means taking a few extra precautions. The key is to have open and honest conversations early on with your partner to ensure you’re both aware of the risks involved.
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