Genital Herpes: Myths, Facts & Treatment

by | Jun 10, 2022 | Sexual Health | 6 comments

🕓 Reading time: 4 minutes

Herpes! It’s one of the most common and misunderstood infections and can cause people from all walks of life unnecessary stress and heartache.

Only a small percentage of people exhibit symptoms of the virus despite most adults in Australia having it.


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And yes, the stereotypes of horrible rashes, pain, and the end of one’s sex life are all myths.

Even so, being diagnosed with genital herpes can be quite perplexing. “I think I have herpes, what do I do?”, “Who the heck gave it to me?” and “Who do I need to tell?” are all normal responses.

What is Genital Herpes?

Known as herpes simplex virus 1 & 2, or HSV-1 and HSV-2, the disease is a member of the Herpesviridae virus family.

Transmission from one person to another usually occurs during genital, anal, or oral sex.

genital herpes myths

Historically, we thought HSV-1 was the cause of cold sores, and HSV-2 caused genital herpes, but this is no longer accurate.

In fact, with changing sexual practices, more than half of the first episodes of genital infections in young people are now caused by HSV-1.

Symptoms can range from severe to mild. Some people get blisters that become painful ulcers; others experience no obvious signs.

Flu-like symptoms or painful back and buttocks are also common.

Does Herpes Go Away With Treatment?

No, there’s no known cure for genital herpes. As with chickenpox, herpes is one of the many viruses that become a part of your system after your first infection.

However, we can easily manage symptoms with antiviral medication, such as acyclovir, famciclovir, and valaciclovir.

When pain or discomfort is present, people often gain relief from the likes of:

  • salt baths
  • ice packs to the affected area
  • over-the-counter medication such as paracetamol.

Enough of the sciencey stuff – let’s bust some myths!

Myth: Only People With Multiple Sexual Partners Get Herpes

Sure, the more sexual partners you have, the more likely you will encounter an STI. When you’re out in the wild, it’s just a numbers game.

But in the case of herpes viruses, it’s so common and so easily transmitted that anyone outside of an uninfected, monogamous relationship can get it.

The same viruses can cause cold sores from kissing before you’re otherwise sexually active.

More than 80% of people infected don’t even know they have it.

You can get genital herpes even if you rarely have sex, no matter how safe and protected your sexual activities may be.

Myth: There’s No Chance of Catching Herpes With a Condom

Using condoms certainly helps reduce the chance of catching or passing on the disease, but it’s not foolproof.

herpes condoms

This unfortunate fact exists because lesions caused by genital herpes can form anywhere around the genitals.

Contact with these lesions transmits the virus in most cases.

Sex is messy, and condoms only protect the parts of the penis they cover from direct skin-to-skin contact.

Sexual partners can also become infected through asymptomatic shedding. This is when the virus sheds from other parts of the genital region, even where no signs of infection are present.

Oral sex accounts for more than a third of genital herpes transmissions. People rarely use condoms and dental dams during oral sex as they don’t offer complete protection even when used correctly.

It’s a life of celibacy and a whole-body condom if you want 100% protection, yet I don’t think it’s worth the hassle for such a garden-variety bug!

Myth: You Can Say Goodbye to Your Sex Life

Utter rubbish. Genital herpes doesn’t define you or your sex life.

Having herpes means taking precautions when you experience flare-ups, and that’s about it.

It doesn’t make you a walking biohazard.

Antiviral medication effectively reduces the severity, frequency, and duration of outbreaks. And since contagious periods mainly occur during outbreaks, you can enjoy a normal sex life with the virus.

In my opinion, the main factors of great sex are communication and acceptance of your partner’s perfect imperfections.

Myth: People With Herpes Can’t Have Kids

Genital herpes doesn’t affect your fertility. Don’t let anyone tell you differently.

herpes pregnancy

It’s simply a skin condition that has otherwise minimal impact on your health.

People who claim this myth are likely talking about chlamydia and gonorrhoea – two other sexually transmitted infections (STI) that can cause fertility issues.

What’s more, women with the virus give birth to perfectly healthy babies.

Even if an outbreak occurs around the time of vaginal delivery, the risk of neonatal herpes is minimal.

I’ve heard absurd theories that genital herpes also increases a woman’s chances of developing cervical cancer, which can severely affect fertility.

Again, this is entirely false.

An STI known as human papillomavirus (HPV) is linked to cervical cancer and is relatively easy to detect.

Reliable HPV vaccines exist.

Myth: Without Obvious Symptoms, Your GP Can Still Test for the Virus

GPs don’t usually test for genital herpes unless you exhibit physical symptoms. Standard swab tests won’t pick up any trace of the virus if you have no symptoms.

Blood tests will only indicate if your immune system has ever interacted with the virus.

Remember your first and only cold sore as a teenager? Yup, that’ll show up as positive.

The blood test is useful in very specific circumstances where a person is unwell and their immune system is having trouble with common viruses like this one.

Still, the test is generally a waste of your blood and causes unnecessary stress.

If you have lesions around your genitals, swabs must be taken directly from these sores and sent away for lab testing.

However, your GP will have a pretty good idea if you have herpes from how the lesions appear.

They’ll likely prescribe antiviral medications while you await test results.




So, rest assured the sky won’t fall in, and you won’t get banished to a deserted island if you have genital herpes.

Like the millions of Australians living with the virus, it’s usually very manageable and has little impact on your day-to-day life.

Please speak with your GP if you have any concerns.


Dr Nick Hudson blog

Dr Nicholas Hudson is a local GP at Doctors of South Melbourne.

He has special interests in sexual health, men’s health, and LGBTQIA+ health.

You can make an appointment with Nick online or call us on 8579 6838.


6 Comments

  1. Ross

    I have HSV2, back in Nov 2020. No recurrence on genitals but I did have blisters on my right elbow 2 mtns later. I don’t get cold sores.
    Is it safe for me to give oral sex (cunnilingus) to my partner without transmission oh hsv2?
    Does viral shedding of hsv2 come from mouth mucosa?

    Reply
    • Doctors of South Melbourne

      Hi Ross,

      Thanks for your comment.

      Assuming you’ve never had herpes lesions on your mouth/tongue/throat, you’ll not be shedding herpes from your oral mucosa.

      Unfortunately, sometimes people might not know they’ve had herpes in their mouth (commonly called cold sores) because their outbreak was relatively mild or they contracted the virus when they were young.

      Please note: This general advice does not replace individual advice from a doctor tailored to your circumstances.

      Kind regards,
      Doctors of South Melbourne

      Reply
  2. tagen

    hello there i’ve got a few question if you would kindly answer them i’d appreciate it a lot.
    my partner has tested positive for hsv2 after being together for 8 months. i have recently done 3 blood tests, 1 at 2 weeks, 9 weeks and now 16 weeks which has all came back negative! i was just wondering what are your expertise on the results accuracy and should i have any doubt that the results could be incorrect

    Reply
    • Doctors of South Melbourne

      Hi Tagen,

      Unfortunately, we can’t comment on test accuracy without seeing the results and taking a full medical history. However, blood tests are not the best method to test for HSV2. Instead, taking swabs of sores or lesions provides the most accurate diagnosis.

      Though not impossible, your partner’s HSV2 is unlikely to be infectious unless they have sores or lesions.

      Kind regards,
      Doctors of South Melbourne

      Reply
  3. Sarah

    Hi! Is it possibly for it to be passed through spit? My partner had a cold sore and spit (not skin to skin) on my genitals. Is it possible I may now have genital herpes?

    Thank you!

    Reply
    • Doctors of South Melbourne

      Hi Sarah,

      Transmission from saliva on its own would seem to be low risk. However, it’s best you visit your own GP to have a consultation to discuss this in more detail.

      Regards,
      Doctors of South Melbourne

      Reply

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