Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted disease (STD) caused by either of two types of herpes viruses. However, the genital form of herpes is more commonly associated with herpes simplex virus type 2, or HSV-2. Genital herpes is a common condition, affecting more than 45 million Americans alone, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. However, many people infected with the herpes virus are not even aware of it because symptoms can be mild or absent altogether. Symptoms of genital herpes usually include one or more blister-like bumps in the genital and rectal area. Because genital herpes is so common and widespread, it is important to understand the different ways you can get genital herpes.
Sexual contact is by far the most common way to get genital herpes. When someone is infected with the herpes virus, they develop blister-like sores that after 7 to 14 days, usually burst open and crust over. Your chance of contracting genital herpes is highest when you have genital to genital contact with a person who has open sores in the genital or rectal area. These open sores contain high amounts of the herpes simplex virus, thereby increasing your risk for transmission during sexual contact. Using condoms during sexual intercourse is an effective way to reduce your risk for contracting genital herpes. However, if open sores come into contact with an area that is not covered by the condom, you can still contract genital herpes. In addition, remember that although the risk is lower, you can still get herpes from sexual contact with someone who does not have active symptoms. For this reason, it is always best to practice safe sex.
Herpes simplex virus type 1, or HSV-1, is the type of herpes virus that commonly affects the mouth and surrounding area. This kind of herpes virus often causes cold sores or fever blisters around the mouth and on the lips. However, the virus can still be spread to the genital area during oral sex, resulting in genital herpes. This is especially possible if the person has an open sore on the mouth or lips. Much like with herpes type 2, you can still get genital herpes through mouth to genital contact if the infected person doesn’t have an open sore. This is because the virus is still present in the affected person’s saliva, regardless of visible symptoms. In the case of oral sex, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends using a mouth barrier, such as a dental dam, to prevent mouth to genital transmission.
Unfortunately, there are several common myths about how genital herpes is transmitted. Perhaps the most common myth is that you can get genital herpes by using a public toilet. However, according to the International Herpes Resource Center, this is only a myth. The herpes virus is very fragile and dies quickly once exposed to air. In fact, there has never been a proven case of contracting genital herpes from using a toilet seat. Another common myth is that casual contact, such as shaking hands, can transmit the virus. It is true that the virus is always present in the body of an infected person, but the virus is spread to others through contact with an infected area or through body secretions. For example, you must touch the affected area, whether it is a cold sore on the mouth or a genital lesion, to contract herpes. Just touching the healthy skin of someone with herpes will not transmit the virus unless the area is an affected area. However, it is always best to wash your hands frequently.
There is no cure for herpes, which makes preventing the infection even more important. Luckily, preventive measures are very effective at limiting transmission of the disease. Recent studies show that antiviral medications can also decrease your risk for contracting the disease. In fact, antiviral medications temporarily reduce the amount of herpes virus in the affected person’s body. This helps prevent transmission and speeds up healing time for people with open lesions. Regardless of the risk factors, the best way to prevent contracting genital herpes is by practicing safe sex each and every time you have sexual contact. If you suspect that you or your sexual partner may have genital herpes, abstain from sexual contact until both of you can see a doctor.
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: Genital Herpes Fact Sheet http://www.womenshealth.gov/publications/our-publications/fact-sheet/genital- herpes.cfm
- International Herpes Resource Center: Herpes Myths versus Facts http://www.herpesresourcecenter.com/mvf.html