Herpes is a virus that is spread through skin-to-skin contact with infected areas. It can cause sores on or near the genitals or mouth, and contact with these sores can spread infection to another person. It is considered a sexually-transmitted infection (STI), and has two types: Herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) and Herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2). These sores begin as blisters that are itchy, painful, and are intermittent – they may come and go. It is a lifelong disease that requires careful management given the discomfort it causes and high rate of contagiousness. The symptoms can be managed with medication that also lowers your chances of giving herpes to another person, but it cannot be cured. Talk to your doctor about your options. If you are hesitant to reach out to your doctor or are concerned about privacy, there are also options for seeking herpes treatment online. HerpAlert is one website that connects you to doctors who can help diagnose, treat, and manage your condition all from the privacy of your home.
Each subtype of herpes infects a different area of the body. HSV-1 (oral herpes) prefers to infect areas around the mouth, and HSV-2 (genital herpes) thrives in areas around the genitals. It is possible to get either type of herpes in an area if, for example, a person with oral herpes makes oral contact with the genital area of a person without herpes, and vice versa.
Herpes virus causes blisters on the skin from time to time, and can sometimes take years to appear. The blisters develop into sores when they rupture. When these sores are present and open or oozing, the virus is as its most infectious. However, herpes can still be spread even if the infected person does not have any visible sores. The areas of the body most vulnerable to infection are also your most sensitive, such as the delicate tissues of your eyes, mouth, vagina, penis, and anus. Other areas of the body are vulnerable if there is damage that leaves the underlying tissues of the skin exposed, such as a cut, burn, or rash that comes into contact with an infected area. This means that a person can also self-inoculate, meaning they can spread the infection to other areas of their body if they touch an open sore and then touch another part of their body with any of the aforementioned cut, burn, or rash.
Though sores are a common sign of an outbreak, burning during urination (if urine comes into contact with a herpes sore), fever, achy flu-like symptoms, and itching are all signs of a herpes outbreak. If you’ve been recently infected, an outbreak will usually occur between 2 to 20 days post-exposure, but some people never develop symptoms at all or can take years to develop symptoms. It’s important to get tested regularly for STI’s because not all infections, including herpes, are obvious. Outbreaks of herpes usually last 2-4 weeks, and it is important to practice good hygiene, such as hand-washing after contact with sores, during this period.
The good news is, though herpes may be annoying, painful, and cannot be cured like other viruses such as the common flu, the intermittent outbreaks become less frequent over time, and people with herpes can live relatively normal, healthy lives. Because herpes cannot survive outside the body for very long, it cannot be spread through hugging, hand holding, or sitting on the same surface as someone with herpes. Medications can help you manage your symptoms and reduce the chance of infecting another person.
Medications can do a lot of things to improve your quality of life if you have herpes. They can shorten the duration of an outbreak, prevent an outbreak from coming on so often, and reduce the symptoms and chances of infecting a partner. It is important to remember that drug therapy is not a cure, it can only help ease the outward symptoms and discomfort.
The three most commonly prescribed medications for treating herpes are valacyclovir, famciclovir, and acyclovir. If an infection is particularly severe, a healthcare facility may recommend intravenous (IV) medication. IV medication can help to front load (provide an initial high dose before tapering off to lower, regular doses) to get symptoms under control sooner.
Treatment can be either intermittent or suppressive. Intermittent treatment uses antiviral drugs when the patient notices a sore or feels a herpes flare coming on. The medication will be taken for 2-5 days to reduce the severity of symptoms and help them to resolve faster. Intermittent therapy is used if outbreaks are not that frequent in the patient.
Suppressive therapy is an option for patients who feel their flares are interfering with their daily life or who find them to be more frequent. This requires a daily dose of antiviral medications that can reduce the amount the patient sheds the virus, reduces the severity, frequency, and duration of flares, and can help reduce the chances of infecting a sexual partner with herpes. Condoms are necessary regardless of whether the patient is on antiviral drugs, given that this therapy may only decrease chances of transmitting herpes by 50%.
Remember that herpes does not always present symptoms if it has been contracted, and it is impossible to know with certainty if you’ve been infected if only relying on outward symptoms like sores or fever. Regular testing and careful use of condoms (female or male) are important ways of managing herpes and it’s potential for transmission, but condoms alone are not 100% effective.
Taking medication every day can be tough. You should make an appointment with your doctor at least once a year to determine if your type of treatment is working for you and whether it should be continued. Some patients find daily medication difficult to keep track of, but there are many ways to work around this, whether it is using a weekly carrying case for your medication, setting reminders, or asking someone you trust to hold you accountable. If it is inconvenient, your doctor may recommend a different pattern of treatment.
Side effects of medications are documented to be mild and antiviral medications for herpes, such as valacyclovir and acyclovir are generally well-tolerated. Your doctor will be the most helpful in helping you decide which treatment is the best for you.
Though herpes cannot be cured, it can be well tolerated with medication, careful use of condoms, and methods of self-care such as frequent hand-washing after contact with an open sore or during a flare, and avoiding sexual contact during a flare. Condoms alone are not 100% effective in preventing a partner or another person from contracting herpes. A diagnosis of herpes doesn’t spell disaster for the patient – with careful management, people with herpes can lead healthy, normal lives.
Disclaimer: The content in this article should not serve as a substitute for a professional medical opinion. Please speak to a qualified medical professional if you have questions about your specific options for treatment. Not all conversations with your doctor need to be in an office: some services such as HerpAlert are available in a purely online format for your comfort and privacy. Be well!