Herpes simplex virus (HSV) II, a.k.a. genital herpes, is a virus passed on via sexual and close-quarters contact, including saliva, and in many instances, appears as genital blisters 3-7 days (but from one day to three weeks) after contact with an infected person. But, symptoms may not appear for weeks, or years, or ever, in you or the person you caught it off. Outbreaks always appear in exactly the same place, which is a clue if you have had more than one outbreak.
There are two strains of the herpes virus (HSV1 and HSV2), with both able to cause genital symptoms. HSV1 is also often found on the mouth as cold sores, though HSV2 is found less commonly on the mouth. HSV2 is so common that one in eight people are thought to have it, with most of those people not knowing they have it. HSV1 causes urinary symptoms more often than HSV2.
The first outbreak is almost always the worst by far. It can be crippling pain on your genitals. Then, the first year may be bad too, but after that it tends to calm down as your immune system kicks in. Some people may only ever get one outbreak.
Condoms don’t stop the spread of herpes, but they definitely help. Dead skin cells can shed the virus onto another person’s skin and infect them. This means playing the blame game gets tricky: you could have caught it off someone a decade or more ago.
Before you despair, medication and herbal therapies can reduce the outbreaks significantly (and sometimes they never come back by themselves), and reduce the severity of symptoms. Herpes isn’t a life sentence, even though it is with you for life. Your kind of herpes will be the butt of many STD jokes, but you’ll just have to grin and bear it.
Symptoms of genital herpes
- Small, painful sores or blisters on the genital area that pop into blisters
- Blisters can take days or weeks to heal and scab over
- Flu-like symptoms – fever, headache, malaise
- No symptoms at all
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Body aches
The atypical herpes symptoms that may not look like any of the above symptoms
- A prolonged yeast infection
- A cut that appears for no reason
- A negative HSV2 test
WARNING: Many standard STI tests in some areas, for some unknown reason, do not test for HSV1 or HSV2 as part of their usual assay. Make sure you are tested for everything possible in your STI test.
The first episode of herpes
This is usually the most painful and the most anxiety-ridden. You may feel sick as if you have the flu, headaches, pains, and groin-gland enlargement. You may present with small blisters on or around your genitals, which pop open into ulcers, then scab over and heal after a week or two. You may see small red cracks in the skin with or without itching or tingling, and redness, rash, pain and swelling in the genitals, with pain when you pee. You may get some or all or none of these symptoms.
Avoid touching your vulva and vagina for as long as you need, including sex and masturbating – it will be sensitive.
Herpes outbreak triggers
Over time episodes come on less often, are less painful, and are shorter. Things that can trigger outbreaks are stress, your period, sexual activity and otherwise being unwell.
Testing and treatment for herpes
You need to be swabbed by your doctor to test for herpes. It’s better to be sure, and not pass it on. Things that can help in an outbreak are salt baths, ice packs, pain killers, and antiviral drugs or herbs. Don’t use mouth medication on your genitals.
Antiviral medication can now be taken daily or weekly to keep outbreaks at bay, or to treat an outbreak as it occurs to shorten duration of symptoms. Talk to your doctor. If you want a naturopathic solution, there are immune-related herbs that act to support your immune strength, though what works best for you will need to be discovered through trial and error.
There are some antiviral-resistant strains of HSV, in which case your treatment will change. Topical antiviral treatments of any kind are not very effective and their use is discouraged.
If you are pregnant or will be pregnant, the risk of transmission to your baby is high. If you have an active outbreak when you are due to give birth, a caesarean section is almost certain. Drugs can be used to safely treat you during pregnancy and breastfeeding. Acyclovir and valacyclovir are the drugs of choice during pregnancy.
There is no added risk of cancer with HSV infection.
Dealing with HSV2 emotionally
This virus causes probably the most distress outside of HIV, because it affects the way you feel about yourself, your body, and your relationships with your partners. This is understandable.
It can feel really lonely and isolating, so try to remember that these feelings are normal, despite being incredibly unpleasant. You are allowed to grieve for all the bareback sex you may never have freely again, bemoan the conversations you never wanted to have with potential lovers, and curse your body for betraying you, your lover for infecting you, and the universe for giving you this fucking curse. Do it! It’s ok. Nobody likes herpes, so howl it out and when you’re ready, get on with it. You’re allowed.
If you’re lucky, you may never have another outbreak. Work on strategies to keep your immune system really strong – see a doctor, naturopath, and whoever else you need to to keep your system functioning optimally, so that when you do fall down, the drop is shorter, and hopefully doesn’t trigger an outbreak. Lowered resistance is really what kicks off HSV2 (and HSV1), and you can control that to a greater or lesser degree.
Your stress response is largely in your hands, so get some tools in the toolkit. That could include counselling, a case of wine and your best mates, a long run, sitting down by yourself, or herbs to calm your system. Figure out what works for you, and learn about your stress systems, and how you can interrupt them. It’s worth doing.
The blame game – stop it
It’s really tempting to blame the person whose genitals passed this dreaded lurgy on to you. It seems fair, right? They gave it to you. But, remember, unless you have only had sex with one person, it could have just as easily been you who gave it to them. And maybe someone in your past has turned up recently with herpes, and is busy off blaming someone else close to them who can’t defend themselves.
This is the risk we all take when we have sex with other humans. We are filthy dirty creatures covered in all manner of bacteria and viruses. We give them to each other all the time. Every cold, flu or stomach bug you get, you caught from someone else.
The thing is, you’ll never know who you got it from unless you’ve only ever slept with one person (or had them fiddle with your bits). Feeling dirty and gross because you ‘trusted’ someone is really unfair to both yourself and the other person. You didn’t trust them not to give you an STD – that’s not the deal. If you have sex with someone, that’s the risk you take. We all take that risk. Stop blaming someone else, despite the temptation.
Getting regular STI tests, and making sure your partners do too, is really important for this very reason. Don’t let someone else be in charge of your sexual health, and then blame them when it goes wrong. We are full of bacteria and viruses, all the time, and this particular one makes life more miserable some of the time than many others. Take responsibility for your choices, throw a tantrum about it if you want to, but at the end of the day, you had sex with someone and you caught herpes.
Be kind to each other.
Pregnancy and HSV2
If you are pregnant, the chances of you passing the infection to your baby during delivery are small, but real. Herpes can make your baby very sick indeed. Discuss this with your healthcare professional and they will be able to advise you further.
How herpes is spread
Herpes is passed on by skin contact, so you don’t even have to have had sex for this to happen. A dirty finger, toy or mouth can pass it on. If you get oral sex by someone with a cold sore, it can be passed on that way to those who don’t have the mouth version of herpes already. General rule number 1: anyone with an infection should not engage in kissing, sexual contact or otherwise until it is resolved. It can be passed on even when the person is not showing signs of sores, so always use condoms.
Don’t spread it
Use condoms and dental dams during sex to protect yourself or your partner to reduce (not eliminate) the risk. There is always a risk. Lube also helps because it reduces trauma to the skin during sex caused by friction. This addition has been shown in research to be very effective when with a new partner in reducing transmission, particularly in the first six months. If you have a lot of outbreaks, taking daily antiviral medication or herbs will help.
If you are freaking out and need to talk to someone, call your local sexual health centre and go online to talk to others just like you who have been there, done that, and get some ideas on how to cope.
And don’t worry: out of every eight people you see walking down the street, one of them has it. You are in good company.