Herpes, or herpes simplex, is a virus transmitted through oral or genital contact. Oral herpes, or herpes simplex virus 1 (HSV-1), is the most common, with nearly 60% of the U.S. population infected with the virus. Herpes simplex virus 2, or HSV-2, is spread through genital contact and affects about 16% of the U.S. population, these numbers coming from the Centers for Disease Control, or CDC.
The virus is characterized by sores, or blisters, that appear around the infected area (mouth in the case of HSV-1 and genitals or anus in the case of HSV-2). The sores associated with oral herpes are commonly referred to as “cold sores” or “fever blisters.” HSV-1 infection occurs when contact is made with the bodily fluid or sore of an infected person. HSV-2 is also spread through contact with the skin of an infected person who may or may not appear to have the associated sores. While HSV-1 is primarily found in the mouth area, it can also appear in the genital or anal area if infection occurred during oral sex.
There is no cure for herpes and once infected, the virus remains with the infected individual. However, medication is available that can help to shorten or event prevent outbreaks. Other medication is available to help reduce the risk of transmission.
Herpes is asymptomatic, meaning that it often does not exhibit any visible symptoms except for the blisters described above. As such, many infected individuals do not even know they are infected, increasing the chance of infection. In fact, many people do not know they are infected until a partner or newborn is diagnosed with the disease. The best way to prevent the spread of herpes is, of course, abstinence. Barring that, limiting sex to an uninfected partner in a monogamous exclusive relationship is also an effective way to prevent the spread of herpes. Condoms do offer protection, but they are not as effective in preventing herpes transmission as they are with other sexually transmitted diseases, or STDs. Those with an existing immunosuppressant condition, such as AIDS, are more susceptible to infection. Likewise, studies have shown that herpes increases one’s risk for contracting HIV.
Herpes can lead to more serious complications, so it’s important to be proactive in its diagnosis and treatment. Any questionable sores around the genital area should be checked out by your doctor, who may order a herpes test. Likewise, if a sex partner has been diagnosed with herpes, you should be tested as well, either by your doctor or at a local clinic. Confidential testing facilities can also be found on-line or in the phone book. If you are sexually active, regular STD testing should be part of your regular healthcare routine.