Why Herpes isn’t as big of a deal as you may think


3rd Feb 2022 Wellbeing

Why Herpes isn’t as big of a deal as you may think

Chicken pox. Shingles. Mononucleosis. Cold sores. None of these ailments are fun, but you typically don’t freak out about them.

Then throw genital blisters in with the group. Yep, you read that right. All these conditions — including bumps down below — are caused by some form of the herpes virus.

In that case, why does everyone make such a big deal out of a genital herpes diagnosis? The truth is, contracting HSV-2, the virus that causes genital blisters, isn’t the end of the world. Sure, you’ll need to take more precautions in the sheets, but it shouldn’t turn your life upside down. Let’s put your mind at ease with some facts you may not already know.

Treatment is available — and it works

If you know (or suspect) you’ve been exposed to HSV-2, your first step is seeing your doctor. If your diagnosis is positive, you can get treatment for both your immediate and long-term needs. Since herpes can flare back up from time to time, having genital herpes treatment on hand is a good idea.

These meds offer a couple of important benefits. Typically, you’ll feel tingles or a burning sensation before an outbreak. Taking the medication when you sense these blisters coming on can make your symptoms easier to handle. If you take a pill daily, you might be able to prevent episodes altogether. The added upshot? These meds reduce the chances you’ll pass the virus to your partner by 50%.

Still, be sure you use a barrier method of birth control, like condoms, for added protection whenever you have sex. Keep in mind, though, even condoms aren’t 100% effective. They simply can’t cover every inch of skin that might carry the virus.

Transmission rates are relatively low

You know genital herpes is contagious. But is it equally contagious all the time? No, it’s not. It’s easiest to pass it along when you’re in the middle of an active outbreak. During those times, it’s best to avoid having sex of any kind.

When the virus is dormant (which is most of the time) it’s much harder to pass it to your partner. If you decide to have unprotected sex between outbreaks, there’s a 10% risk of male-to-female transmission. The transmission risk is lower from female to male.

Condoms aren’t perfect. Pairing them with antiviral medication, though, gives you better protection. Together, they drop your risk to 1%-2%. Clearly, if you avoid outbreaks and protect yourself and your partner, transmission can be a small concern.

Genital Herpes is common

People might not talk about genital herpes a lot, but more people have it than you think. In fact, more people have it than they think. Worldwide and in the United States, genital herpes is one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases. So if you have the virus, there’s no reason to be embarrassed.

Based on World Health Organization statistics, half a billion people carry the virus. This year, the CDC estimates there will be 572,000 new infections in the United States. Add those individuals to the nearly 20 million Americans who already have it. The kicker is most people with genital herpes have no clue they’ve been exposed, because they never have an outbreak.

Symptoms can be mild or nonexistent

You’ve likely heard scary stories about what it’s like to have a genital herpes outbreak. Lots of blisters and pain, right? If that happens, chances are it will only be with your first episode. After that, your symptoms start to lessen, and your outbreaks could become less frequent. Or you could be part of the group that never has an outbreak at all!

Even though your symptoms decrease over time, the first time you experience them can be rough. You can expect to feel flu-like symptoms — fever, chills, fatigue, swollen glands. For most people, severe symptoms like that are “one-and-done.” Along with becoming milder, your outbreaks should become less frequent. The longer you go between episodes, the less contagious you are. Remember there’s still a chance you can transmit the virus.

It’s not a life-threatening infection

Getting genital herpes will certainly impact you. It’s different from other types of viruses that can be more dangerous, however. For example, the human papillomavirus (HPV) is another sexually transmitted infection (STI). It’s a lot scarier, though, because it has the potential to cause cervical cancer.

With genital herpes, you can rest easier. The HSV-2 virus isn’t interested in being lethal. Any complications are usually minor, such as urinary tract infections.

That said, there are instances where genital herpes can be more serious. If you’re pregnant, there’s a chance you could pass the virus to your baby. To avoid that, your doctor may recommend a C-section for delivery. Having genital herpes can also increase your risk of contracting other STIs, including HIV. So be sure you use protection every time you have sex.

Doctors rarely test for it

If you ask for a standard STI testing panel, you’ll get results for syphilis, gonorrhea, chlamydia, and trichomoniasis. You might be surprised that genital herpes isn’t on the list. Doctors simply don’t think it’s worth testing for on a routine basis.

Their logic on not testing for genital herpes is based on everything discussed above. A significant number of people already have the virus. Most people don’t experience significant symptoms—or any. Transmission rates are low when the virus is dormant. Plus, the test won’t be accurate if you aren’t having an active outbreak.

If you’re still concerned, though, ask your doctor for a blood test. It can detect whether you’ve been exposed to the virus and developed antibodies. It’s best to wait 12-16 weeks after a suspected exposure to get the most accurate results.

It’s true that getting a genital herpes diagnosis won’t be the best news you’ll ever hear. It also doesn’t have to be the worst, either. If you get the virus, you’re not alone. Millions of other people are living their best lives with it. That’s proof that genital herpes isn’t the big deal you thought it was.

Keep up with the top stories from Reader’s Digest by subscribing to our weekly newsletter.