Straight, No Chaser: 10 Questions You Want Answered About Genital Herpes

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If you’re in a room, look around. Look to your left, then to your right. Look behind and in front of you. Then look deep inside yourself. Statistically, one of the people you’ve just viewed has genital herpes. Different studies suggest between 16-25% of us between ages 14-49 are infected.

Questions You Want Answered Regarding Genital Herpes

1. How common is it? That’s actually a question with two answers. One of five or six individuals have herpes (well over 50 million Americans if you’re keeping count), but it’s estimated that just short of 800,000 new cases occur every year.
2. How do you get it? Herpes is transmitted sexually (genital, oral and/or anal contact) via someone already infected.
3. Can you really get it from a cold sore? Possibly and theoretically yes, but usually not. The Herpes Simplex Virus-1 (HSV-1) is usually found in oral blisters (i.e. ‘cold sores’ or ‘fever blisters’), and its family member HSV-2 is usually found on or near the genitalia, but both can be found in either. Although the Center for Disease Control and Prevention states that “Generally, a person can only get HSV-2 infection during sexual contact with someone who has a genital HSV-2 infection,” many (if not most) emergency physicians have diagnosed herpes based on transmission from oral as well as genital sex.
4. What are the symptoms? Most have no symptoms or symptoms that may be mistaken for the flu (fever, body aches and swollen and tender lymph nodes). The prototypical symptoms are a cluster of blisters (around your genitalia, mouth, fingers or rectum) or painful ulcers.
5. Does it really stay around forever? Yes. Fortunately, the frequency and severity of outbreaks decrease as you age (assuming your immunity is good). If you are immunocompromised, HSV infections can be devastating.
6. If I catch chickenpox or shingles, does that mean I’ll have genital herpes? No. There are many different herpesviruses. HSV-2 is the virus that causes genital herpes. Varicella zoster virus (VZV) is the virus that causes chickenpox and shingles. Varicella zoster does not cause genital herpes.
7. Is it true you can catch herpes in the eye? Yes. Wash your hands. Or else…
Herpes Simplex KeratitisHerpeticWhitlow

8. What was that last picture? That wasn’t an just eye, there was also a finger! Well, how did you get it got from the genitals to the eye (Please don’t answer in the comments section…)? That’s called herpetic whitlow. Notice the common theme of grouped clusters of small blisters (vesicles) again. Regarding that eye infection (herpes keratitis), it can cause blindness.

9. Is it true that women get it more often? Some estimates suggest that 25% of American women and 20% of men have genital herpes. Transmission from males to females is easier than from females to males, but guys, I wouldn’t take any chances.
10. What about the babies? 80-90% of general herpes infections to newborns are transmitted during childbirth as the newborn passes through the birth canal. C-section is recommended for all women in labor with active symptoms or lesions of herpes.
11. How do you treat this anyway? Antiviral medications are used at first sign of outbreaks. These medications don’t cure you of herpes, but they do shorten the frequency and severity of outbreaks. Plus, you’ve got to let your sexual partner know about this. It’s criminal not to.
Overall, my best advice to you is prevention, knowledge about your status, recognition of symptoms and prompt treatment. It is very important to emphasize that many people live quite normal lives with herpes. That still doesn’t mean you should be cavalier or irresponsible about it.
I welcome your questions or comments.
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0 thoughts on “Straight, No Chaser: 10 Questions You Want Answered About Genital Herpes

    1. Hi, Dorothy. Great question. Testing for herpes is not especially good these days, with a lot of false negatives even when one is in the midst of an active infection (that applies for the viral culture and antigen detection tests we try to do in the emergency rooms). However, your best bet when not in the midst of an active infection would be an antibody test to see if the immune system has mounted a response. These aren’t as accurate as the viral culture (or the clinical diagnosis), but if you’re concerned, that’s the way to go. Thanks for your question and following Straight, No Chaser.