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Think you may have been exposed to genital herpes? Here’s what you need to know.
What is genital herpes?
Herpes is a viral infection caused by two strains of the herpes simplex virus: type 1 (HSV-1) or type 2 (HSV-2). Type 1 is usually associated with cold sores on or around the mouth. Genital herpes is usually caused by type 2.
How is genital herpes spread?
- Herpes is an infection spread by kissing, oral sex or anal sex with a partner who has a herpes infection.
- Herpes is most transmissible during cold sore or blister flare-ups, but the virus can still be spread if these symptoms aren’t present.
- Genital herpes can be transmitted by receiving oral sex from a guy with a cold sore. Genital herpes can also be transmitted by giving oral sex to a guy with genital herpes.
How do I know if I have genital herpes?
- Symptoms vary from person to person. You might never have symptoms, or the symptoms might be so mild that you don’t know you have the virus.
- You might get itchy, painful blisters on your penis, testicles or anus. The blisters will eventually rupture and turn into oozing, shallow sores that take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks to heal.
- After the first outbreak of blisters, the virus moves into the nerve cells and becomes inactive. It springs to life every once in a while, and then travels down the same nerve causing another outbreak of sores. Being stressed, run-down, sick or sunburned can trigger an outbreak. Eventually, the sores happen less often, heal faster, and don’t hurt as much.
- If you’ve been exposed to genital herpes, it’ll take up to 14 days to experience your first outbreak. Sometimes symptoms won’t show up for months or even years, making it hard to figure out when the infection happened.
- If you have an impaired immune system, genital herpes can be more severe.
- Herpes infection can occur in other areas of your body, such as in your eyes and inside your anus. In rare cases, herpes can cause meningitis or encephalitis (brain inflammation).
How do I test for genital herpes?
Be honest with your health care professional about your sexual history and symptoms, and ask for a physical exam. Without a sore, a test can be difficult. If you have a sore, a sample may be sent for testing. In some cases it may require a blood test.
What do I do if I have genital herpes?
- There is currently no cure for herpes infections—once you have herpes, you have it for life.
- The number of outbreaks usually slows down after a few years; many guys who have genital herpes never get blisters or sores again after the first outbreak. Some people get outbreaks more often.
- Antiviral medication can relieve pain and itching and help the sores to heal faster. The treatment works best if it is started soon after an outbreak begins.
- If you suffer from frequent outbreaks, you might think about taking a low dose of antiviral medication on a regular basis. If this is a concern for you, talk to your doctor.
How do I protect myself from genital herpes?
- Condoms can reduce the spread of herpes. Prevention is never 100%; condoms protect only a portion of the penis or anus.
- PrEP, while effective at preventing HIV transmission, does not protect against other STIs such as herpes.
- Don’t kiss, have anal sex or have oral sex if you have symptoms or are being treated for herpes.
- Don’t kiss, have anal sex or have oral sex with anyone who has symptoms or who may have recently been exposed.
- You can also reduce your chances of picking up or passing on herpes by limiting your number of sex partners.
Herpes and HIV
- Having any STI or having sex with someone who has an STI will increase your risk of picking up HIV.
- Herpes causes open sores. Open sores make it easier for HIV to be passed on. Even without open sores, areas where previous outbreaks have occurred may still be especially vulnerable to HIV transmission.
- If you already have HIV, active herpes may increase your viral load, increasing the chances you’ll pass HIV on to others.
- Regular use of condoms will reduce the risk of picking up or passing on herpes and HIV.