Herpes 101: Transmission, Prevention, and Treatment


Herpes 101: Transmission, Prevention, and Treatment

Herpes is a very common sexually transmitted infection (STI). According to Statistics Canada, 1 in 7 Canadians has the virus that causes genital herpes. And most of the people who have it don’t know they have it! Although there’s no cure, there are treatments and ways to prevent it from spreading. It’s considered a very manageable STI.

What are the types of herpes? What are the symptoms?

There are two kinds of herpes. Herpes simplex virus 1 (HSV-1) is often called oral herpes, or cold sores. This usually affects the area around the mouth by causing cold sores. It can start with tingling or itchiness around the mouth.

The second kind is herpes simplex virus 2 (HSV-2). This is often called genital herpes. It usually affects the genital area by causing small blisters. It can start with rash-like symptoms around the genitals.

Other signs of both types of herpes can be flu-like symptoms. These may include a fever and headaches. They can also be loss of appetite, and itching/burning while peeing. These symptoms might show up within a month – or longer – after contracting the virus. But many people don’t have any symptoms at all, or have very few symptoms. The most common symptom of an STI is none at all! This is why it can be helpful to get tested for STIs if you are or want to be sexually active.

Both types of herpes can affect both your mouth and your genitals. You can get HSV-1 in your genital area, and you can get HSV-2 around your mouth. This is most likely to happen from oral sex.

What treatments are there for oral herpes?

People often use a gel called docosanol to treat cold sores. The most common brand of docosanol is Abreva, which you can get at most pharmacies. You can buy it without a prescription. If a cold sore is causing a lot of pain, a doctor might prescribe a mild anaesthetic gel that numbs the skin.

Doctors can also sometimes prescribe a pill (like Valtrex) to make the cold sore heal faster. These pills are usually antivirals. It can help to keep the area around it clean. You can do this by washing the area with warm water and a gentle soap.

What treatments are there for genital herpes?

There are three different treatment options for people with HSV-2.

  • Initial treatment: This treats the sores someone has on their genitals. This is done when the doctor gives a diagnosis. The doctor will usually prescribe about a week of antiviral drugs to help clear up the outbreak.
  • Intermittent treatment: When someone has genital herpes, sores usually show up once or twice a year. They usually go away on their own. A doctor may prescribe antiviral medication for you to use when the outbreaks happen to help the sores clear up quicker. With the help of these antiviral drugs, the sores will usually clear up in 2-5 days.
  • Suppressive treatment: This is for when someone has 6 or more outbreaks a year. Their doctor might suggest they take a pill every day to lower the chances that they’ll have an outbreak. This kind of treatment can lower the number of outbreaks that people have by 70-80% over a year. As a result, lots of people on the treatment end up having no outbreaks at all.

Keeping the area dry and clean helps outbreaks heal faster. As with oral herpes, you can wash the area and your hands more often to speed up healing.

What can trigger a herpes outbreak?

Often, stress or anxiety can lead to an outbreak. It’s also important to make sure you sleep enough because fatigue can lead to an outbreak too! Some people get more outbreaks around when they menstruate. Using bleached menstrual products or products that aren’t made out of cotton can cause outbreaks, too.

For some people certain detergents and scented products can make outbreaks more likely. Many people with the virus also find that things rubbing against their crotch or mouth can cause an outbreak. That could mean riding a bike often, or having sex often (especially if you don’t use enough lube). Sweating a lot can also trigger an outbreak.

How is herpes spread?

Herpes likes to live in moist areas on the body. This means it can go from one person’s mouth to their partner’s mouth, genitals and anus, or to the mouth from these areas. It’s also possible to get the virus by touching a sore with your finger and then touching one of these areas (like the mouth, genitals, or anus).

Herpes is most likely to spread when there are sores. But it can also spread from skin areas where sores happen, especially right before a sore is about to form. This is less common, though.

Doctors usually test for herpes by taking a sample of a sore during an outbreak. They can also take a blood test, but the virus will only show up on the test 6-12 weeks after you’ve gotten it!

How can I lower my risk?

You can lower the chances of giving or getting herpes by using barriers like a dental dam or condom. A dental dam is a thin rectangle of latex that’s used as a barrier to cover the vulva or anus for oral sex. If you don’t have a dental dam you can make one from a condom! To do this, unroll the condom, snip the top off, and then make a cut up the side of the condom. This should leave you with a thin square of latex.

Herpes is most likely to spread when there are sores present. You can avoid touching the area where there’s a sore until it’s healed. Condoms or dental dams might not cover all the areas where sores are!

If you have herpes, taking suppressive treatment will lower the number of times you get sores. This lowers the chances of you transmitting herpes to your partner(s). Your doctor can help you choose the best treatments for you!

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