Herpes is not a word many people much like to be associated with. The condition, which can be as simple as an invisible cold sore on the lips, or cause a full-blown attack of unsightly sores on the genitals, is often thought of as one of the worst STIs a person can get, purely because of the common knowledge that it is “incurable”.
And while it’s true that people who have either strain of the virus—HSV-I and/or HSV-2—will carry it for the rest of their lives, it’s also possible to suppress the virus to a point where outbreaks of the sores are incredibly rare, if existent at all, as well as the likelihood of transmission from person-to-person.
In addition to this, both types of HSV—which stands for Herpes Simplex Virus—typically cause the occasional outbreak of sores, but don’t bear the same risks that can be attached to other, more treatable STIs, such as chlamydia or gonorrhoea.
Both of these conditions are highly treatable with antibiotics, it’s true, but if left untreated they can also cause infertility, especially in women.
And like HSV-1 and HSC-2, they can both lie dormant, with little or no obvious symptoms.
One could argue that as such, they are more dangerous than an inactive case of herpes, though don’t enjoy the same nasty stigma as HSV-2 (especially) as they are “curable”.
However you see it, the facts about living with herpes are this: it sucks, it’s treatable, and it’s pretty bloody common, meaning if you’ve recently found out that you are infected, you’ll likely feel a bit shit, but find solace in the fact that you are very far from alone.
What’s the difference between HSV-I and HSV-II?
HSV-1 and HSV-2 are similar, but affect the body differently.
HSV-1 is more common, and typically causes sores around the mouth and lips (commonly known as cold sores).
HSV-2’s sores are generally more prevalent around the genital and anal areas. If you hear the term “genital herpes”, it is most likely referring to HSV-2.
It is also important to note, however, that both types of herpes can affect both mouth and genital areas.
And remember: it is possible to have both types of the virus.
What are the symptoms of herpes?
Sometimes, nothing. Which is one of the many reasons HSV-1 and HSV-2 are complicated conditions.
But typical symptoms of HSV-1 include a “tingling” sensation around the mouth, followed by sores or blisters, which usually form scabs.
HSV-2 symptoms are a little more severe; usually in the form of painful sores around the genitals and/or anus.
Other symptoms can sometimes include muscle aches, fever, headache, nausea, flu-like symptoms, and swollen glands.
So, just how common is herpes?
Far more common than you probably think.
In Australia, it’s estimated that a whopping 75 per cent (yes, that’s three in four) of adults carry the HSV-1 virus, and a staggering 10 per cent carry the HSV-2 virus.
It’s also noted that more women carry the HSV-2 virus than men do. In fact, some studies indicate that the rate of infection for HSV-2 amongst women is around double that of men.
The other very important thing to note about these (already high) numbers is that it’s nigh on impossible to know them to an exact degree, due to the fact that plenty of people go about their daily business blissfully unaware that they are carrying the virus, having never experienced an outbreak of sores.
Why the gender imbalance?
While at first it might seem curious to note that women sufferer from HSV-2 at a disproportionate rate, the reason for this is very simple: it is much easier for a woman to contract herpes from a man during sex than it is for a man to contract it.
This is thanks largely in part to a woman’s vaginal walls being more susceptible to infection than the thicker, more resistant skin on the penis. Both kinds of HSV require the right environment in which to ensconce themselves, that ideally being a mucous membrane. While the skin on a penis is generally thinner and sensitive than elsewhere, and it can still house an infection, it’s not nearly as vulnerable as that of the inside of a vaginal opening.
Unfair? Sure. But it does bear considering when thinking just how infectious and easily spread this condition really is. And male or female, it’s always better to have preventative measures in place, even (arguably especially) if you know you already have it.
What does treatment look like?
When it comes to dealing with herpes, there are three types of treatment that are generally explored at different times, each catering to different needs.
Initial treatment is a brief course of antiviral therapy to relieve immediate symptoms, and to try to alleviate the likelihood of their getting any worse. This sort of treatment typically goes for seven to 10 days.
Intermittent treatment involves using an antiviral drug when symptoms start to flare-up. This usually means taking what a doctor has prescribed for two to five days at the very beginning of an outbreak of sores, reducing their severity.
Perhaps most importantly, however, is the use of suppressive treatment.
Suppressive treatment involves taking a prescription antiviral drug every day. This can reduce the number of outbreaks for some people by 70 to 80 per cent—a huge reduction. In fact, many people who choose a course of suppressive therapy have no outbreaks whatsoever.
And considering that a carrier is far more contagious during an outbreak, even if it hasn’t shown itself physically in its worst state, this is a very important type of therapy in that it does help reduce the spread of the infection (though condoms and the like are still a must).
Finding out you have genital herpes is a really raw deal. From worryingly finding that first sore, to getting a confirmed positive test from a doctor, it can feel like an end of days for your sex life, and it’s an unfair go.
But with ongoing suppressive treatment, it is possible to lead a long and happy herpes-free life—one which isn’t defined by a dumb condition that isn’t your fault.
Loads of people have herpes—it has to be one of the commonest conditions around; there are more people in Australia with HSV-2 than there are natural blondes—let that sink in for a second.
But by talking to a practitioner and getting a treatment plan sorted, you can give yourself one less thing to worry about. You might not be able to kick herpes, but you can certainly do a lot to stop thinking about it.