Although herpes is one of the most common STIs in the world, it's still very much a taboo health condition.
Perhaps it’s the stigma that makes herpes uniquely devastating to be on the receiving end of, or maybe it's its permanency. But whatever it is, it's apparent that herpes carries a unique psychological burden, made worse by the fact that many of us refuse to talk about it.
So, let's talk about it.
What is herpes? How do you get it and what are the treatment options? Read as we answer all your questions about this STI.
Oral vs genital herpes — What’s the difference?
Not much actually.
Herpes, or herpes simplex virus (HSV), is an infection that can cause painful blisters and sores, and there are 2 main types of the virus:
- Herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV1) is responsible for oral herpes (think cold sores and fever blisters), although it can also occur in the genital area. It is super common and around 75% of Australians carry it .
- Herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV2) is less common, affecting around 12% of the Australian population . It almost always affects the genitals and tends to be more severe too. Interestingly, HSV2 is more common in women, though this might only reflect a greater chance of diagnosis through regular cervical screening and pregnancy checkups.
What are the symptoms of herpes?
Many people with herpes won’t find out that they have it until years later, as the virus can lie dormant for a long period of time, leading to very mild symptoms (or even no symptoms at all). This is perhaps why it is so easily spread — because many people don’t realise they have it.
Having said that, some of the most common symptoms of oral herpes include:
- Itchiness/tingling sensation around the lips (typically before the blisters form)
- Redness and swelling
- Painful blisters around the lips, under the nose, or inside your mouth (which eventually turn into sores)
As for genital herpes symptoms, it's common to experience:
- Painful blisters on the genital area
- Itchiness around the genital area
- Small bumps around the genitals and anus
- Discharge from the vagina and urethra
- Pain while peeing
During the first outbreak, you may also notice flu-like symptoms, like fever, headache, and muscle aches.
How do you get genital herpes?
Genital herpes is contracted during sex and it spreads through fluids from the genitals or mouth.
Herpes can also be passed via nips and cuts on the body, which you can come into contact with during sex. For this reason, although condoms lower your risk, they don't completely eliminate it.
In short, if you have skin-to-skin contact with someone who has the herpes virus, you can get it. This can be when your genitals or mouth touch theirs during vaginal, anal, or oral sex.
Can genital herpes affect fertility?
Having herpes doesn't automatically make you infertile. It can, however, impact your chances of getting pregnant for 2 reasons. One is simply that having herpes can make it trickier to have unprotected sex, particularly during an outbreak. The other is that in men, genital herpes can reduce sperm count .
However, it is still very much possible to conceive even if you or your partner have herpes and you can always reach out to your doctor or fertility specialist for professional support.
Can you treat herpes?
Yes — both oral and genital herpes can be treated, although they are lifelong conditions and at present there is no known cure. Treatment options include:
Antiviral medication can reduce the severity of the initial genital herpes infection and decrease the pain and discomfort of symptoms. Daily use can also reduce the frequency and severity of future outbreaks.
Pilot offers 2 easy treatment options, available for men and women struggling with herpes sores around the mouth or the genital area.
One is a suppressive treatment that reduces recurrences by 80% and transmission risk by 50%, while the other is a one-off course of antivirals to shorten the duration of a current outbreak and lessen the severity of the symptoms.
Take Pilot's text-based questionnaire today to get a personalised treatment plan made just for you and discreetly delivered to your door.
Taking medication doesn't mean that your risk of infecting a sexual partner is completely gone. It's possible to pass the infection even when you're not suffering a breakout, so using condoms at all times is recommended. During a breakout, someone with herpes will be likely to spread the virus, so it's best to avoid sex altogether.
There are also some home remedies you can try to reduce irritation and relieve uncomfortable symptoms (although it's recommended that you consult your doctor before trying these).
- Apply a cold compress or ice pack on the area to reduce swelling and itchiness — just make sure never to put ice directly on your skin
- Take a sitz bath in lightly salted water
- Use an aloe vera gel for a soothing effect
- Drink lemon balm tea or apply lemon balm oil on the skin 
Your diet matters too, and eating nutritious foods will boost your immune system and help your body respond to the herpes virus:
- Zinc can reduce the number of outbreaks 
- Vitamin C can accelerate the healing process and extend the time between outbreaks 
- Protein, vitamin B, and omega-3 acids can improve your body's immune response
Herpes is a lot more common than most of us think, affecting over 400 million people worldwide.
If you have it, you're not alone, and talking about it shouldn't make you feel ashamed. With the right medication, an open and honest approach, and some good knowledge of the virus, you can still maintain a healthy sex life and live just like anyone else.
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