Openly talking about herpes is anything but easy. As common as it is (in fact, one out of every six people between the ages of 14 to 49 years have genital herpes), discussing the causes, symptoms, and treatment options for herpes brings the inevitable wave of confusion and fear. But it doesn't have to be that way. In fact, understanding the basics of herpes can help you become more confident in how to talk to your partners or hookups as well as give you hope and excitement about leading a normal life should you ever become diagnosed with the STD.
If you have noticed any discomfort you're unfamiliar with or suspect you might have herpes, see your doctor or gynecologist to discuss or diagnose your condition. We talked to Dr. Kelly Martin Schuh, author of Love and Thrive With Herpes: A Holistic Guide For Women, to learn more about how herpes affects women and what you should know about this common virus.
What is herpes?
"Herpes is a group of viruses that affect the skin or nervous system," Dr. Schuh explained. "HSV, or herpes simplex virus, is the form of the virus that causes cold sores and genital herpes. Both cold sores and genital herpes are highly contagious and can be transmitted through sexual contact." According to the World Health Organization, there are two different strains: HSV-1, which can be spread through oral contact (symptoms include cold sores!), and HSV-2, the infection that causes genital herpes. Your doctor can conduct tests to help better understand your condition.
How is it contracted?
Contrary to many myths out there, herpes is not always contracted sexually. Dr. Schuh explained that there are three different ways of contracting herpes.
- Intimate Contact: Transmitted orally through kissing or sexual contact.
- Autoinoculation Transmission: Contracted through skin friction, a mucous membrane, or broken or damaged skin.
- Congenital Transmission: Passed from a mother to her newborn baby at birth. The chances of this happening are rare!
Herpes does not survive for very long outside of the human body, which is why you are not at risk for contracting it from a toilet seat, locker room, or hot tub.
The most common symptoms
According to Dr. Schuh, herpes symptoms often go unnoticed because they are very similar to skin irritations or infection. "The most classic sign of herpes is a single blister or cluster of small, itchy blisters," Dr. Schuh said. "In terms of genital herpes, early symptoms are often associated with painful or itchy blisters, redness, fissures, tingling, or pain in the genital area or boxer short region." She also suggests watching out for "vaginal or penile discharge, painful urination, swollen lymph nodes, fever, and muscle fatigue," which are common symptoms of new infections.
Your Treatment Options
Treatment for herpes can include different types of therapy and diet or lifestyle changes. "Traditional herpes treatment focuses on decreasing the frequency and severity of symptoms," Dr. Schuh said. "This is done through diet, stress management, supplementation, and prescription antiviral drugs." According to the CDC, antiviral drugs (along with condoms) can also help reduce the chances of spreading infections to a sexual partner.
Adjustments to your diet can prevent outbreaks from occurring. "For those suffering from frequent outbreaks, a diet low in the amino acid arginine is ideal," she said. "Foods to avoid include grains, chocolate, alcohol, nuts, nut butters, and caffeine."
Diagnosis can be shocking and overwhelming, but it is possible to live a normal life. "What most people fail to address is the traumatizing psychological impact that comes with this socially stigmatized diagnosis," Dr. Schuh shared. "There is no cure but community! It's time we get educated, inspired, and empowered."