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). It's a very common reality to experience an STI at least once in your lifetime. For anyone who is sexually active in 2020, it's important to understand what being diagnosed with an STI means 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 when you’re dealing with herpes? In short, herpes is incredibly common and something you can manage. But let's dive a bit more into the medical stuff, first.
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 sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
There are two main types of herpes:
● 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 (a.k.a. genital herpes)
But that’s not where the story ends. Although oral herpes is most commonly caused by HSV-1, this strain of herpes can also cause genital herpes too (and vice versa). Both strains of herpes can cause both oral and genital herpes, which can make it tricky to pinpoint exactly what strain of herpes causes the sores and blisters to occur.
Regardless of what strain you contract, herpes causes uncomfortable sores and blisters that can be annoying, inflamed and painful. But for many people, they 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).
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 commonly mistaken for other things), there are a few common signs that could indicate you have herpes.
In the case of genital herpes, the most common symptoms include:
● 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 (which is the most common cause of genital herpes), you might also encounter flu-like symptoms as well, 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 two to four weeks. But even once the blisters ease, further outbreaks are incredibly common.
In the days or weeks leading up to an ‘outbreak’ you might notice common 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.
● Blisters around your lips and surrounding skin
● Blisters inside your mouth
● Gums that are painful or swollen
● Sore or swollen throat
● Bad breath
● Increase saliva
● Feeling unwell or experience 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.
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 from 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 an infected person (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.
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 herpes, they’ll live with the virus in their system for the rest of their life.
Currently, 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 to this painful, and often recurring, condition. Until then, the best course of action is to manage symptoms as they arise.
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 while 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 partner, but you can take steps to make things as safe as possible. That means avoiding sex when your partner is experiencing an outbreak and waiting until symptoms subside (such as cold sores and blisters) 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.
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 the 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.
The longer we avoid talking about herpes, the longer sufferers will be forced to navigate the shame of this misunderstood condition.
While herpes can be uncomfortable and painful, the condition is much more common than you’d think. Although there isn’t a cure, there are practical ways to manage symptoms as they arise. While its important to avoid sex during an outbreak, herpes doesn’t have to stop you 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.