It’s important to know the signs of herpes simplex virus (HSV) infection to get prompt treatment and avoid spreading it to others. Unfortunately, because herpes symptoms can be mild or non-existent, most people do not know they’re infected. In this article, we will share the information you need to identify a herpes infection and the steps you can take to protect your health.
Herpes is a common infection caused by the highly contagious virus herpes simplex virus (HSV). There are two main types of HSV, which can cause oral and genital herpes.
Most people infected with HSV have few or no symptoms. When symptoms occur, people typically experience painful blisters around the mouth, genitals, or anus.
If you suspect you have herpes, seeing a healthcare provider for a proper diagnosis is essential. This may involve physical examination, lab testing, or both.
While there is no cure for herpes, effective treatment and prevention strategies are available.
What is herpes?
Herpes is a common and highly contagious infection caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). There are two HSV types: HSV-1 and HSV-2. Both types can cause small, painful blisters on any body part where the virus comes in contact with broken skin or mucous membranes. However, HSV-1 most often causes oral herpes infections, while HSV-2 primarily causes herpes infections in the genital area.
Once infected with HSV, it stays in the body for life. But after the initial infection, the virus becomes inactive. In some people, the virus may remain inactive and not cause symptoms again; for others, it may occasionally reactivate and cause symptoms to reappear.
When an HSV infection causes blisters, it’s known as a herpes outbreak. While the duration and severity of outbreaks can vary from person to person, they generally last for several days to weeks. If repeated outbreaks occur, they tend to become shorter and milder over time.
Oral vs. genital herpes
Oral herpes typically causes blisters on or around the mouth, commonly known as cold sores. It mainly spreads through direct, non-sexual contact with saliva, such as kissing. It can also spread by sharing drinking glasses or other items that have come in contact with an infected person’s saliva.
Genital herpes, on the other hand, is among the most common sexually transmitted infections (STIs). It causes blisters on or around the genitals (vagina, vulva, cervix, and penis) or anus. Unlike oral herpes, genital HSV infections mainly spread through sexual activity, including vaginal, anal, and oral sex.
How to detect a herpes infection
Regardless of the type of infection, people with herpes often have no symptoms or mild symptoms that go unnoticed. This means you can have herpes without knowing it. Because of this, you must see a healthcare provider for an accurate diagnosis if you suspect you have herpes.
Here are some ways that a healthcare provider can help you determine if you have herpes:
- Look for physical symptoms. Symptoms of herpes typically include one or more blisters on or around the mouth, genitals, or anus. These blisters eventually burst, leaving painful sores that can take weeks to heal. Other symptoms may include pain, itching, burning, or tingling in the affected area before blisters appear. Additionally, some people may experience flu-like symptoms such as fever, muscle aches, and swollen glands during the first outbreak.
- Perform a swab test. If you have a visible blister, a fluid sample can be taken from it using a cotton swab to test for HSV. A swab sample is the most reliable way to diagnose herpes.
- Perform a blood test. If no blisters are present, a blood test can be used to check for antibodies to the herpes virus. A positive test result means you have been exposed to HSV at some point in your life. However, it cannot tell you when or where the infection occurred.
Next steps after testing positive
After receiving a positive herpes diagnosis, talk to your healthcare provider about treatment options, including whether antiviral medications are right for you. While herpes is not curable, antiviral medications can help manage symptoms, shorten outbreaks, and decrease the risk of transmission to others. It’s also a good idea to inform your sex partners about the diagnosis, as herpes can still spread to others when an infected person is not experiencing symptoms.
Herpes prevention tips
Although a herpes diagnosis can be a challenging experience, it’s important to remember that effective treatment and prevention strategies are available to keep you and your partners healthy. The following are just a few steps you can take to help prevent the spread of herpes to others:
- Avoid close contact during outbreaks. If you or your loved one have oral herpes, avoid kissing. If you or your sex partner have genital herpes, avoid unprotected sex. For oral or genital herpes, avoid any direct contact with blisters when they are present.
- Practice safe sex. If you do have vaginal, oral, or anal sex, use a condom every time. However, be aware that condoms may not offer complete protection if they do not cover all blisters.
- Seek treatment if necessary. If you suspect you have herpes, don’t wait to seek medical attention. Early and effective treatment can reduce the number and severity of outbreaks.
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