What you need to know about herpes
Logan Bold sheds light on the most prevalent STIs in Australia - herpes.
Did you know that the most prevalent STI is herpes? It’s caused by the herpes simplex viruses (HSV) of which there are two types. Type 1 (HSV 1) is usually found around the lips and is commonly known as a cold sore. The virus is spread by skin or mucous membrane contact with infected saliva. Once infected, the virus remains in the body for life and symptoms can reappear as a result of stress, the presence of another infection or by change in a person’s hormones. The virus can be present in a person’s saliva when they don’t have symptoms, as such a person can pass on the infection to others even when a cold sore or blister is not present. Oral sex can result in infection of the genitals with HSV Type 1.
Type 2 (HSV 2) is usually found around the genital or anal areas and is transmitted via close skin contact including unprotected sex. The virus gets into the body through the delicate membranes in the genitals and anus or through tiny cuts in the skin. When sores or blisters are present, a person is more likely to pass on type 2 of herpes to others.
For some, the initial infection can be quite severe with multiple painful ulcers, difficulty passing urine, muscular aches, headaches and fever. Many people will experience less severe recurring symptoms, commonly small localised blisters which can ulcerate appearing not only on the genitals but also on the buttocks, thighs and anus. Others may never have first-infection or recurring symptoms, and sometimes the symptoms caused by herpes may be mistaken for a rash or other minor discomfort. Generally though, symptoms will appear 7 – 12 days after contact and recurring symptoms most commonly last between 3 – 7 days.
To test for herpes, a doctor will take a swab from the area and send it off for testing. A positive result confirms that you have herpes. A negative result may mean you don’t have the infection or could be a result of the virus not being present on the skin at the time the swab was collected. As such, sometimes the swab test may need to be repeated. Whilst there is no cure for herpes, antiviral medication is available on prescription from your doctor to treat outbreaks.
Whilst it is still possible to pass on herpes when no blisters or sores are present, when sores are present, transmission can be reduced by not touching the herpes sores and washing hands with soap and water immediately if contact does occur. Condoms and dams are effective barriers to prevent infection if they cover the infected area, and when using condoms always use water based lube.
Why not talk to your GP about getting a complete sexual health? Or visit your nearest sexual health clinic?
If you find out that you have an STI make sure that your current sexual partner(s) are tested and treated. Telling your previous sexual partners can be as easy as sending an anonymous text or email. Just visit ‘thedramadownunder.info/notify’ for further details.
Practising safer sex by always using a condom & water based lube for both anal and vaginal sex is the best way to prevent further infections.
Logan Bold is the Health Educator in Community Building at Gay Men’s Health and acknowledges the NSW Department of Health, Clinic 275, SHine SA & SA Health in the writing of this article.