The Ultimate Genital Herpes FAQ
So you have herpes. Or your partner has herpes. Or you’re wondering if maybe you’ve been infected.
Now your mind is whirling with questions you’ve never had to ask before. What exactly is herpes, anyway, and what does an infection mean for your health and quality of life?
We have all of the answers you need right here.
What Is Herpes?
Herpes, or herpes simplex, is a common virus that causes cold sores and genital herpes.
Cold sores and genital herpes are both members of the Herpesviridae family of DNA viruses, so they share many of the same characteristics and symptoms, including recurring infections and painful sores. However, each condition is caused by a different strain of the herpes simplex virus (HSV).
Cold sores are usually categorized as herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1), while genital herpes is categorized as herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2). It was once believed that only HSV-2 was sexually transmitted, but research now shows that up to 42% of genital herpes in females is actually caused by HSV-1, not HSV-2.
What Are the Different Types of Herpes?
The two most common and well-known herpes viruses are oral herpes and genital herpes.
Oral Herpes (HSV-1)
The herpes simplex virus type 1 spreads through direct contact with the skin and causes cold sores to develop on the face. After HSV-1 enters the body, it spreads easily to trigger cold sores around the lips and mouth. It is highly contagious, especially when oozing blisters are present.
HSV-1 remains dormant in the nerve cells in your skin after your initial outbreak. It may lie inactive for weeks, months, or even years. It’s hard to predict exactly when and how the next outbreak will be triggered in the future.
Genital Herpes (HSV-2)
The herpes simplex virus type 2, most commonly known as genital herpes, is a sexually transmitted infection without a known cure. The most common sign of genital herpes is the development of blisters around the genital area. Herpes simplex blisters are often itchy and painful.
What Does Herpes Look Like?
Cold sores caused by herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) emerges in five distinct phases that cause painful and unpleasant cold sore outbreaks. These five stages transition through tingling, blistering, weeping, crusting, and healing:
Genital herpes, on the other hand, emerge as small red bumps and white blisters grouped closely together on, around, or inside the genital region. These blisters may appear days or weeks after your first exposure to the virus and last two to six weeks.
You may notice tingling, itching, or burning as genital herpes blisters develop. These sores become very painful, fill up with pus, and then eventually burst, dry out, and scab over. Though it may take a few weeks, most genital herpes scabs heal without any scarring.
How Far Away Is a Cure for Herpes?
Unlike bacterial infections that can be quickly cured with antibiotics, a virus like genital herpes has no immediate cure.
Our best hope for a cure may not come from a shot, but from genome editing using something called CRISPR technology.
In December 2019, scientists from Harvard Medical School successfully disrupted the herpes simplex virus for the first time and identified weak spots where the virus may be susceptible to gene editing. Early results suggest there’s hope for a potential cure, but final results are still years or even decades away.
How Many People Have Herpes?
The percentage of people with herpes varies based on location, age, and demographics, but overall it’s a widespread and very common disease. Oral herpes tends to be more prevalent than genital herpes.
How Many People Have Oral Herpes (HSV-1)?
According to the WHO, an estimated two-thirds of the population under 50 are infected with HSV-1 globally. That equals more than 3.7 billion people or 67% of the world’s population. For Americans, HSV-1 infection impacts nearly 50% of all men and women ages 14 to 49.
In some smaller research studies, the percentage of people with herpes was found to exceed 80 or 90%! For example, a randomized study of otherwise healthy Americans above the age of 60 reported an 84% prevalence of HSV-1.
How Many People Have Genital Herpes (HSV-2)?
According to the WHO, 417 million people worldwide aged 15-49 have an HSV-2 infection.
Less commonly, HSV1 can cause the symptoms of genital herpes. It is believed that about 140 million people worldwide are infected with this form of genital HSV-1, especially in the Americas, Europe, and Western Pacific.
Altogether, this totals more than half a billion people worldwide with genital herpes infection. In the United States alone, the ratio of people with genital herpes is one out of every six people aged 14 to 49.
How is Genital Herpes Spread?
Genital herpes is mainly spread through sexual contact. The risk of spreading genital herpes depends on a number of factors, some of which are within your control:
- Length of time you have been infected with the herpes virus
- Whether your partner is a man or a woman
- How frequently you use condoms during sex
- Whether you take antiviral medication
Research shows that in couples where one partner had genital herpes and condoms were used only during outbreaks, the other partner became infected within one year in up to 10% of couples.
The risk drops significantly with additional precautions like consistent condom use and antiviral medication use. One large study reported that only 1.9% of susceptible partners became infected with clinically symptomatic HSV-2 when given the antiviral valacyclovir as a precautionary treatment.
Women who acquire herpes during pregnancy or experience reactivation of the virus during pregnancy also have the potential to transmit HSV-1 to their baby. Fortunately, this is relatively rare. Only about 30 out of every 100,000 births result in HSV transmission to the baby.
How Long Does It Take For Herpes To Show Up After Exposure?
Your first herpes outbreak, known as the initial or primary infection, is usually the most severe. Some lucky people remain asymptomatic, but it’s common to experience intense flu-like symptoms within seven to 14 days of becoming infected with the herpes virus.
Symptoms of an initial outbreak often include:
- Fever and chills
- Aches and pains in the body
- Swollen glands
- Difficult or painful urination
- A tingling sensation in the affected areas
You can expect your initial herpes outbreak to last two to four weeks before it finally clears up. The good news, at least, is that future outbreaks are usually shorter and less painful than the first.
How Do You Test For Herpes?
The herpes virus doesn’t always trigger outbreaks and symptoms, so testing is an important way to monitor your health. The CDC recommends testing if you are experiencing symptoms that could be related to herpes or if you recently had sex with a new partner who has genital herpes.
There are a few different ways to test for and diagnose herpes:
- Tissue or herpes sore sample
- Polymerase Chain reaction (PCR) test to test your DNA for the presence of HSV
- Blood test to detect the presence of HSV antibodies
How Contagious Is Herpes?
The herpes virus is always contagious, even when no symptoms exist. However, the risk of transmission increases significantly when wet, open sores and blisters are present in the midst of an outbreak.
From the time that you begin to feel the itching or burning sensation of developing herpes sores, until your outbreak has completely scabbed and healed, consider the virus highly contagious for your partner.
If you’re the susceptible partner in the relationship and want to learn how to not get herpes from your partner, be sure to abstain from intimate contact until each herpes outbreak has cleared.
How Long Does a Herpes Outbreak Last?
Most people experience their first outbreak of genital blisters and sores about two to 12 days after initial exposure to the virus. After the blisters break, it may take up to four weeks for herpes ulcers to heal.
Fortunately, subsequent outbreaks tend to be less intense. Recurring outbreaks are common but don’t last nearly as long. Sores tend to heal within three to seven days in recurring outbreaks, and the number of outbreak periods may even decrease over time.
How Long Does Herpes Live on Objects?
It’s believed that the herpes simplex virus dies quickly after leaving the body and settling on another surface.
According to the book Managing Herpes by the American Social Health Association, herpes transmission through objects is possible, but not likely. The life of the virus on an inanimate object is estimated to be a few hours. After that, the virus weakens and loses its ability to invade new cells.
For example, if you have an active cold sore outbreak and wipe your mouth with a towel, the virus is only at risk of spreading to another person if the same area of the same towel is used soon afterward. This is easy to avoid with common sense prevention and care.
How Can You Speed Up the Healing of a Herpes Outbreak?
Antiviral medication offers a simple way to control and minimize herpes outbreaks. Acyclovir and Valacyclovir are antivirals used to treat infections caused by the herpes simplex virus.
It’s best to start taking Acyclovir as soon as you notice the first signs of an emerging outbreak. This medication stops the herpes virus from growing and spreading during an outbreak, although it cannot remove the virus from your body completely. Most people experience relief within just a few days of taking Acyclovir for genital herpes.
Valacyclovir, also known as Valtrex, is FDA approved to treat genital herpes. This antiviral drug interferes with the DNA replication of the herpes virus for an even longer duration of time than acyclovir. As a result, you can take Valacyclovir less frequently and still enjoy consistent results.
What Is the Science Behind Red Light Therapy For Treating Herpes?
Antiviral medication isn’t the only way to alleviate herpes symptoms and speed up the healing process. Research shows that high-powered red light treatment can reduce pain and help manage genital herpes outbreaks effectively.
Red light therapy with a device like the Luminance RED nourishes the skin with red light. The light is metabolized to accelerate the body’s healing process and strengthen its defenses against future attacks. Regular use of Luminance RED not only shortens the healing time of active outbreaks, but it can prevent future outbreaks altogether!
In fact, when used immediately at the first signs of an emerging outbreak, studies show light treatments can stop your HSV-2 outbreak from ever forming. Clinical data conclusively shows that high-powered light treatment reduces healing time from 8.2 days to 1.8 days and extends the time before the next recurrence from 124 days to 455 days! Luminance RED uses 660-nanometer wavelengths of light to fight genital herpes and stop your outbreak in its tracks.
With just a few 90-second treatments per day, you can discreetly take control of genital herpes.