What is Herpes?

Herpes is a virus that infects the skin and mucous membranes such as the mouth and genitals. Herpes type one (HSV-1) infects 58 percent of people and primarily causes oral infections, such as cold sores.[1] Most people with HSV-1 do not have it as a result of sexual contact. However, it can be transmitted to and from the genitals by means of oral sex. Due to the increasingly common practice of oral sex, certain populations—such as high school and college students—are seeing a steep increase in genital HSV-1 infections.[2] Type two (HSV-2) mostly causes genital herpes, and it also can be transferred to the mouth from the genitals.

Unlike certain STDs that are spread only by means of bodily fluid, herpes is most often spread by skin-to-skin contact. Not only a person’s genitals but also his or her abdomen, thighs, hands, and other areas can be infected. Herpes can be picked up through contact with these areas and transmitted by a partner who shows no symptoms.

Since herpes is easily transmitted and incurable, it is the most common STD in terms of the number of individuals currently infected. In other words, it is the most prevalent STD. While it is unknown how many people are infected with genital HSV-1, about one in six people are infected with genital HSV-2.[3] Among sexually active singles, the percentage of those infected with herpes is even higher: between 30 and 40 percent![4] While these numbers may seem astoundingly high, one must realize that nine out of ten people who have genital herpes are unaware that they are infected.[5] This is especially worrisome since people with herpes are at an increased risk of contracting and spreading HIV.[6] Women with HSV are also more susceptible to cervical cancer from HPV.[7]

Within a week of contracting herpes, a person may have preliminary symptoms including fever, headache, and muscle aches. Lesions may then appear where the virus was contracted. The lesions usually begin as small blisters before breaking and becoming ulcers. Other symptoms include itching, burning with urination, vaginal discharge, and swollen lymph nodes in the groin area. Since herpes is incurable, it is not uncommon for infected people to have recurrent outbreaks of lesions for the rest of their lives.

Thankfully, it is uncommon for a mother to pass the virus on to her newborn child. But if this occurs, it can be fatal for the baby. To avoid such a tragedy, women with active herpes infections usually give birth by means of a caesarean delivery.[8] Although there is no cure for herpes, antiviral medications can shorten and sometimes prevent outbreaks.

Regarding prevention of the virus, studies show that if a person uses a condom consistently and correctly, it will decrease the risk of herpes transmission by only about half.[9] Therefore, do not expect a condom to protect you or your future spouse and children from the effects of this STD.

[1]. Fujie Xu, et al., “Trends in Herpes Simplex Virus Type 1 and Type 2 Seroprevalence in the United States,” Journal of the American Medical Association 296:8 (August 2006), 964–973.
[2]. C.M. Roberts, et al., “Increasing Proportion of Herpes Simplex Virus Type 1 as a Cause of Genital Herpes Infection in College Students,” Sexually Transmitted Diseases30:10 (October 2003), 797–800; G. B. Lowhagen, et al., “First Episodes of Genital Herpes in a Swedish STD Population: A Study of Epidemiology and Transmission by the Use of Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV) Typing and Specific Serology,” Sexually Transmitted Infections 76 (2000), 179–182; Mary Jo Groves, “Transmission of Herpes Simplex Virus Via Oral Sex,” American Family Physician 73:7 (April 2006), 1527–1534.
[3]. Fujie Xu, et al., 964–973.
[4]. Joe McIlhaney,M.D., Safe Sex (Grand Rapids,Mich.: BakerHouse Books, 1992), 100.
[5]. D.T. Fleming, et al., “Herpes Simplex Virus Type 2 in the United States, 1976 to 1994,” The New England Journal of Medicine 337 (October 16, 1997), 1105–1111; P. Leone, “Type-specific Serologic Testing for Herpes Simplex Virus-2,” Current Infectious Disease Reports 5:2 (April 2003), 159–165.
[6]. Fujie Xu, et al., 964–973.
[7]. J. S. Smith, et al., “Herpes Simplex Virus-2 as a Human Papillomavirus Cofactor in the Etiology of Invasive Cervical Cancer,” Journal of the National Cancer Institute94:21 (November 6, 2002), 1604–1613.
[8]. Centers for Disease Control, “Genital Herpes,” Fact Sheet (May 2004).
[9]. J.C. Shlay, et al., “Comparison of Sexually Transmitted Disease Prevalence by Reported Level of Condom Use Among Patients Attending an Urban Sexually Transmitted Disease Clinic,” Sexually Transmitted Diseases 31:3 (March 2004), 154–160; Anna Wald, et al., “The Relationship Between Condom Use and Herpes Simplex Virus Acquisition,” Annals of Internal Medicine 143:10 (2005), 707–713.

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