The LGBT Health & Development Program

Youth Blog—What’s the Deal with Herpes?

Posted on July 16th, 2015 by IMPACT in Featured, Sexual Health, Youth Blog. No Comments

Written by Daniel P., IMPACT Intern.

two guys sitting on a train, kissing

Photo credit: Davitydave, “Trainstalking,” January 11, 2011

What is herpes, and what does it look like?

Herpes is a chronic viral infection. Because it can be transmitted through sex, it is considered a sexually transmitted infection (STI). It can be treated with medications to prevent and shorten outbreaks and reduce the risk of passing it on to others, but it cannot be cured. That being said, it’s not fatal, which means you can’t die from it, and people with herpes can live long, fulfilling lives.

There are two different kinds of herpes:  herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) and herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2). HSV-1 typically infects the mouth and lips. There it can produce “cold sores” or “fever blisters.” HSV-2 typically infects the genitals or anus (butt). But they can both be spread from one region to another through oral sex, so they can be found in either location.

In an outbreak, you might see one or more blisters. These blisters break open after a few days to become painful sores. After several weeks, the sores heal without leaving any scars. Some people with herpes have only one outbreak. Some people go on to have multiple outbreaks, but many people never even have an outbreak in the first place. These people have what is called “asymptomatic herpes” and can still pass it on to their partners.

To learn more about possible herpes symptoms, check out the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) fact sheet: Genital Herpes

How is herpes transmitted?

Unlike some STIs that are transmitted through fluid exchange, herpes is transmitted from one person to another by skin-to-skin contact. It’s important to know that herpes can be transmitted both during outbreaks and between outbreaks, when there are no symptoms.

How common is it?

  • One large study of men who have sex with men (MSM) aged 18-59 across the U.S. found that 18.4% were infected with HSV-2 [1].
  • Nearly 1 in 10 lesbians has HSV-2, regardless of whether they have had sex with men [2].

How can I protect myself and my partner(s) from herpes?

Aside from avoiding the unpleasant symptoms and psychological distress that can come from living with herpes, it is also important to protect yourself and your partner(s), because having herpes can more than double (!!!) your risk of getting HIV [3]. Anything that damages your skin, one of the most important physical barriers in your body, can make you more vulnerable to infections like HIV.

Because herpes can be transmitted even when there are no symptoms, if you are sexually active, the best way to protect yourself and your partner(s) from herpes infection is to use a barrier (e.g. condoms, dental dams) every time you have oral, vaginal, or anal sex. Keep in mind that these barriers don’t cover the entire genital region, so they may not be effective at preventing transmission if the area where outbreaks typically occur is left uncovered.

Find an STI clinic near you

Check out IMPACT’s STI blog and our videos for more information:
How to Use a Male Condom Correctly
How to Use a Female Condom Correctly – for vaginal or anal sex
Women’s Sexual Health  – dental dams, male condoms, female condoms
Is Oral Sex Safer Sex? 
Which Lube Is Right for Me?

Like this article? Read more on our Youth Blog and Family Blog.
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[1] Xu, F., Sternberg, M., & Markowitz, L. (2010). Men Who Have Sex With Men in the United States: Demographic and Behavioral Characteristics and Prevalence of HIV and HSV-2 Infection: Results from National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 2001-2006. Sexually Transmitted Diseases, 37(6), 399-405. DOI: 10.1097/OLQ.0b013e3181ce122b

[2] Marrazzo, J.M., Stine, K., & Wald, A. (2003). Prevalence and risk factors for infection with herpes simplex virus type-1 and -2 among lesbians. Sexually Transmitted Diseases, 30(12), 890-5. DOI: 10.1097/01.OLQ.0000091151.52656.E5

[3] Freeman, E.E., et al. (2006). Herpes simplex virus 2 infection increases HIV acquisition in men and women: systematic review and meta-analysis of longitudinal studies. AIDS, 20, 73-83. DOI: 10.1097/01.aids.0000198081.09337.a7

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