Genital Herpes: Common but Misunderstood
HSV-1 (oral herpes) most commonly affects the oral regions (around the mouth, on the lips, face, and tongue) and results in sores (referred to as cold sores) or blisters in these regions. HSV-2 (genital herpes) most commonly forms ulcers on the penis, scrotum, anus, and the buttocks.
Clearing the myths by creating awareness regarding the true facts of herpes is crucial to help its further spread. Here are some widespread myths or misconceptions and the associated facts about genital herpes and cold sores.
Myth 1: You can know if your partner has herpes by its symptoms.
Fact: Around eight of 10 people, who get the herpes simplex viruses (HSV), do not develop any signs or symptoms. The virus can remain dormant in the body and fail to show any symptoms until the person’s immunity becomes weak.
Myth 2: A person who has no symptoms is not infectious.
Fact: People with herpes may transmit infections via saliva, genital secretions, or sores. The person may or may not have a sore, but the infection is still possible. A study has shown that even without the sores; 10% of the time, carriers of the herpes virus are infectious. The infection may occur via oral contact, genital contact, or even skin to skin contact.
Myth 3: Genital herpes can spread only when you sleep around with people or have penetrating sex.
Fact: Though genital herpes spreads most commonly through sex or even through genital-genital contact, it can also spread when a person has oral sex with an infected person.
Myth 4: Only certain people can get herpes.
Fact: Anyone who is sexually active is at risk of catching the herpes virus. This is because herpes is mainly transmitted sexually, and many people around are asymptomatic carriers, so you never know from whom you can get the infection.
Myth 5: Genital herpes is uncommon and there are fewer chances that you will get it.
Fact: It is estimated that, globally, over half a billion people between the ages of 15-49 years have genital herpes infection.
The herpes virus is the most common cause of genital ulcers in the United States. At least one out of every six people aged between 14 to 49 years are affected with genital herpes.
Myth 6: Condoms are a sure way to protect against genital herpes.
Fact: Doctors always recommend wearing a condom for protection against sexually transmitted diseases (STD), such as herpes. Using condoms can reduce your risk of getting herpes, but it is not 100% effective in preventing the infection. This is because the virus can also be present on the noninfectious part of the penis, which the condom cannot cover.
Myth 7: Herpes can be transmitted through blood.
Fact: Herpes is not present in the blood and only its antibodies can be detected from the blood, which can help confirm if the person had a prior active herpes infection. It cannot be passed via blood and people with genital herpes can still donate blood. Only skin to skin contact is essential for the spread of genital herpes, which can be both orally and genitally.
Myth 8: If you have genital herpes, you cannot have children.
Fact: Herpes does not affect the childbearing capacity in either of the two sexes. There is a slight chance that the pregnant lady can pass the herpes virus to her baby during delivery. However, some prescription medicines from a doctor can help prevent the mother to baby virus transmission.
Myth 9: Herpes can cause cervical cancer.
Fact: There are neither any reports nor any evidence that suggests that the herpes virus can cause cancer. The virus that causes genital warts, human papillomavirus (HPV), is known to increase the risk of cervical cancer amongst women.
Myth 10: Herpes is a deadly disease.
Fact: It is not a life-threatening condition, but herpes is a lifelong infection that has no cure. It is associated with a few outbreaks that occur when the person’s immunity is weak. People only need to manage the discomfort of the sores by taking antiviral medications.
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Genital Herpes - CDC Fact Sheet. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/std/herpes/stdfact-herpes.htm
Globally, an estimated two-thirds of the population under 50 are infected with herpes simplex virus type 1. Available at: https://www.who.int/news-room/detail/28-10-2015-globally-an-estimated-two-thirds-of-the-population-under-50-are-infected-with-herpes-simplex-virus-type-1
Tronstein E, et al. Genital shedding of herpes simplex virus among symptomatic and asymptomatic persons with HSV-2 infection. JAMA. 2011;305(14):1441-1449.