Herpes is one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). This STD is caused by the herpes simplex type 1 or herpes simplex type 2 viruses and affects one in every six Americans between the ages of 14 and 49, states the Centers for Disease Control. Herpes comes in two common forms, both of which are sexually transmittable, genital herpes, which is herpes affecting the genitals and the anus, or oral herpes, which affects the mouth or nearby areas. By increasing your knowledge of the causes, symptoms and challenges associated with herpes, you can improve your ability to live with this virus if you have contracted it, or prevent yourself from contracting it in the first place if you are currently herpes-free.
One of the reasons that herpes is so common is that some people with herpes have no symptoms at all and, as a result, are entirely unaware that they are infected with the virus. Symptoms of herpes can include blistering, the presence of open sores in the genitals, anus or cervix, burning as urine passes over sores, itching and general pain. Individuals that do show outward signs of the presence of the herpes virus generally experience more pronounced symptoms the first time they appear. This first outbreak is often referred to as “initial herpes.” Initial herpes is often also accompanied by the presence of fever, chills, headache or general achiness similar that what flu-sufferers experience.
While some people never experience an outbreak, or only experience them intermittently and infrequently, others suffer from persistent sores that can affect not only their general comfort but also their quality of life. Herpes sores generally last between two and four weeks and are more likely to be highly pronounced in individuals who already have a compromised immune system.
Many patients are diagnosed with herpes by their doctors upon inspection of sores during the patient’s initial herpes. When sores are visible, doctors can infer the presence of herpes, but will likely also perform a viral culture. This test requires the gathering of tissue from the inflamed area. This tissue is then examined in a laboratory.
It is highly common for doctors to perform a blood test to confirm the presence of the virus as other sexually transmitted diseases can manifest themselves in similar symptoms. Even in instances where the patient exhibits no outwardly observable signs, doctors can perform blood tests to check for the presence of the herpes virus. This method of diagnosing is particularly common when a patient expresses concerns that he or she may have been exposed to the herpes virus by a sexual partner.
A final diagnostic measure that doctors commonly perform is a polymerase chain reaction (PRC) Test. This test also requires the drawing of blood. In this test, doctors analyze the patient’s DNA to look for the presence of indicators of the herpes virus.
Herpes is generally very easy to live with. People with herpes live just as long as those without, on average. While living with herpes can create difficulties in forming and maintaining relationships, herpes sufferers often go extended periods without feeling any health-related effects of the virus’ presence.
One important factor of which herpes sufferers must be cognizant is that the presence of herpes substantially increases the likelihood of contracting HIV, the virus that causes AIDs. People with genital herpes are twice as likely to contract the HIV virus, warns Planned Parenthood, so it is of extra importance that herpes sufferers practice safe sex. Additionally, people who have both HIV and genital herpes are more likely to pass HIV on to their sexual partners than those without herpes, so extra attention is required in these cases as well.
Women infected with the herpes virus may experience additional complications if they become pregnant. Herpes can lead to miscarriage or pre-term birth, so it is vital that women who suffer from herpes receive regular prenatal care. As a herpes-infected mother-to-be approaches delivery, additional precautions need to be taken to ensure that she doesn’t pass the herpes virus on to her unborn baby. If she does, the child may suffer from neonatal herpes, an infection that can potentially result in infant death. To prevent this transmission, many herpes patients are asked to take herpes medicine as they approach the end of their pregnancy. Commonly, doctors elect to perform caesarian sections when the patient suffers from herpes, as this procedure substantially reduces the likelihood of accidental transmission to the infant.
Though less common, some herpes sufferers experience additional complications as a result of herpes-related inflammations. Some herpes sufferers experience inflammation around the urethra, which can create complications when urinating. In severe cases, this swelling can result in the complete blockage of the urethra and is may become necessary to utilize a catheter to allow for the passing of urine during this period.
Similarly, genital herpes can result in the inflammation of the tissue that lines the rectum. This rectal inflammation is most common in men who engage in anal sex with other men and can make it uncomfortable and difficult for the sufferer to express solid waste.
While exceptionally rare, there have been instances in which the presence of the herpes virus has led to the development of meningitis as the membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord become inflamed. The likelihood of this rare but serious infection can be further reduced through the following of a herpes maintenance protocol.
While there is no cure for herpes, there are medical options that can help shorten the duration of outbreaks or, in some cases, prevent them entirely. Individuals who have been diagnosed with herpes can ask their doctors to prescribe an oral medication. Along with affecting the frequency and severity of the outbreaks, many herpes medications reduce the likelihood of virus transmission. The most common medicines used to treat herpes include Acyclovir, Famciclovir and Valacyclovir.
When prescribing oral medications, doctor recommendations for frequency of taking the medication vary. Some doctors recommend that patients only take oral medications when they have symptoms of an outbreak or are currently experiencing flair up. Others recommend that patients take the medication daily as a regulated medication regiment can reduce the likelihood of herpes transmission. Though daily medication may make it less likely that an individual with herpes will give the virus to his or her partner, herpes sufferers should still always use protection when engaging in sexual activity, just like individuals without herpes.
When dealing with an outbreak, many herpes sufferers find relief from warm bathes or cold compresses. Common, over-the-counter painkillers including aspirin and ibuprofen can help alleviate pain and reduce fever if one is present.
It is vital that individuals with herpes exercise extreme care when handling affected areas or coming into contact with fluid from these areas, particularly fluids from active sores. The virus can be transmitted via these fluids, so if patients don’t exercise care, they can inadvertently aid the virus in moving from one part of the body to the other. Frequent hand-washing and even wearing rubber or latex gloves when handling affected areas, especially during a flare-up, are recommended.
Once diagnosed with herpes, it is vital that patients take care to prevent the spread of herpes to others with whom they come into sexual contact. Herpes sufferers should avoid sexual contact during outbreaks, even refraining from sex with a condom, as this is when the virus is most easily spread. Patients are encouraged to begin refraining from sexual activity as soon as the first signs of outbreak appear. It is generally safe to resume condom-protected sexual activity seven days after the sores heal, recommends Planned Parenthood.
Regardless of whether one has a confirmed case of herpes, individuals should always avoid wetting contact lenses with saliva. Along with being unsanitary, this practice could result in the transmission of oral herpes to the eyes, which can have serious and painful repercussions.
Patients who have been diagnosed with herpes should always disclose their status to potential sexual partners. While this can be difficult, it is both morally necessary and vital to preventing transmission. The Mayo Clinic recommends that herpes sufferers communicate often and openly with their partners. It is also recommended that patients avoid placing blame, as doing so will only further stress an already complicated relationship. It is beneficial to remember that, because the herpes virus can lay dormant in the body for many years before symptoms arise, it is often difficult to determine from whom the virus originated in the first place.
There are support groups for individuals with herpes, and many sufferers find regular attendance at these support group meetings to be helpful in dealing with the illness. At these meetings, herpes sufferers discuss not only the strides they are taking to minimize the physical effects of herpes but also their efforts toward limiting the emotional toll that the virus can have on the affected individual. Sufferers, particularly those having a difficult time coming to terms with the presence of the virus, are recommended to seek the support provided by these groups.
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