October 2021
Let's Talk About Sexual Health
Hedda Fay

Herpes: Still a Thing

There are those who do not believe they’re still around, but yes, herpes is just as common and contagious today as it ever was.

HSVI and HSVII: The two viruses are not as simplistic as their names suggests. There is a lot of misinformation out there about these two viruses, so let’s explore the facts.

All strains of herpes are extremely contagious, and typically spread through saliva, sores and skin-to-skin contact. These viruses are known to “shed,” releasing trace particles of themselves even when the host is asymptomatic. They lay dormant for years before presenting any symptoms. There is currently no cure for either virus, but they are treatable with antiviral medications.

Herpes simplex I(oral herpes) is very contagious. Most people that have this form of herpes obtained it as children from being kissed by relatives. The cold sores people get around the lips and face are beyond their control, but when they do have them, they should be cautious and not kiss anyone. We also sometimes find oral herpes in a person’s genital region, even though we more typically find HSVII there, usually due to oral sex.

Herpes simplex II (genital herpes) is also very contagious, and generally affects the genital area. Two-thirds of genital herpes cases are a symptomatic. Because much of the genitals remain uncovered with proper condom use, during an outbreak you can still contract genital herpes with a condom, which reduces risk by up to 30%. It is always important to know your status and be engaged with care should you need it. The CDC reports that more than one of every six people aged 14 to 49 has genital herpes, it’s that common. The herpes virus can also be shed from skin without a visible sore.

First outbreak: The first things to look for during the first herpes outbreak are fever, swollen lymph nodes, chills, muscle aches and headache. Outbreaks can cause sores, pain in the genital area, mouth or anus, and shooting pain in legs or buttocks, which can occur hours or days before the eruption of a herpetic lesion.

Each year Americans report two million HSVI diagnoses and three million HSVII diagnoses. Unfortunately, there can be unnecessary shame, stigma and embarrassment with a herpes diagnosis, but since this virus is so communicable, it’s vitally important that you get tested if you believe you have been exposed or have had unprotected or risky sex.

If you are in a relationship with someone who has genital herpes, there are ways of lowering your risk:

  • Talk with your partner and find out whether they are taking anti viral medication. Intimacy is more than physical interactions, it can include personal health information. If your partner does not have access, refer them to the county health clinic, which treats people for HSVII with or without insurance.
  • Avoid engaging in sex, whether vaginal, anal or oral, when your partner has symptoms or feels like a flareup is occurring.
  • Use condoms and lubricant appropriately to further reduce your risk when having sex.
  • Use dental dams for oral sex.
  • Use female condoms for vaginal and receptive anal sex.

Remember to make a full-panel STD test and HIV test a part of your annual healthcare exam. This is Hedda Fay reminding you to send your sexual health questions to me at fay.h@northlandcares.org.I look forward to hearing from you soon!

Hedda Fay, the Community Outreach and Program Manager of Northland Cares, answers your questions about sex and sexual health.