For Emma, a 23 year old girl from Sydney, having genital herpes has been hard to handle.
Although this sexually transmitted infection (STI) is one of the most common in the world, having the conversations about it holds her back from new sexual relationships.
Like most people with herpes, Emma tells Kin she has battled with the psychological burden of the virus in a way that isn’t common to other STIs.
Perhaps it’s the stigma that makes herpes uniquely devastating to be on the receiving end of, or maybe it's the permanency of the condition. 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.
Oral vs genital herpes - what’s the difference?
Not much actually. Genital herpes is caused by two main viruses, known as HSV1 and HSV2. It was once thought that HSV1 was responsible for oral herpes (think cold-sores), while genital herpes were caused by HSV2. But this isn’t necessarily the case.
HSV2 is less common, in around 12% of the Australian population. It almost always affect the genitals, and tends to be more severe too. Interestingly HSV2 is more common in women, though this might only reflect greater chance of diagnosis through regular cervical screening and pregnancy checkups.
Why don't we talk about herpes?
As an STI, herpes has a unique stigma attached to it - often thought of as a virus that is reserved for the sexually promiscuous. For this reason it’s become a kind of recurring joke in culture, something that is damaging and needless to say, dumb.
But what even is genital herpes? And why are so many of us carrying it but not talking about it?
Asking a gal pal ‘have you ever had chlamydia?’ feels like an acceptable question, whereas asking "have you had herpes?" can feel almost accusatory. Perhaps it is the everlasting nature of this STI that makes it so taboo.
So, is herpes really incurable?
To understand why herpes is considered incurable we need to deep dive into what it actually is. Here are a few facts about Herpes that you may not have known (because no one bloody talks about it!):
- Genital herpes is a very common STI, caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV)
- HSV is so common, that three quarters of adults in Australia carry some form of it (!!!)
- There are two types. One is found around the mouth (HSV1) and one is found around the genitals (HSV1 and HSV2).
- Around the mouth it usually shows as cold sores, and around the genitals it shows as genital blisters amongst other symptoms.
- Oral herpes (HSV1) can be transmitted to cause genital herpes through oral sex. So don’t go thinking that everyone has cold sores so it doesn’t matter. Not true.
There is currently no cure for Herpes. There are, however, antiviral drugs you can take to keep outbreaks at bay.
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. This is perhaps why it is so easily spread - many people don’t realise they have it.
The symptoms of genital herpes are:
- Painful blisters on the genital area
- Muscle aches
How do you get herpes?
Genital herpes is contracted during sex and 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 diminish it.
In short, if you have skin to skin contact with someone who has the virus, you can get it. This can be when your genitals or mouth touch theirs during oral, anal, or vaginal sex.
Can herpes be treated?
Yes - herpes can be treated, although it is a lifelong condition. At present there is no cure. However, 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.
Although antiviral medication treats herpes and may keep breakouts at bay, your risk of infecting a partner isn't 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 during breakouts.
Herpes is a lot more common than most of us think and affects over 400 million people worldwide. If you have herpes, 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 on the virus, you can still maintain a healthy sex life and live just like anyone else.