Of the one in eight sexually active Australians who have genital herpes, only a small percentage exhibit symptoms.
And they’ll tell you it isn’t as bad as the stories might have us think. Debilitating pain, grotesque lesions spewing puss and the literal end of one’s sex life are pure myths.
Even so, being diagnosed as having genital herpes can be quite perplexing. ‘Who the hell gave it to me?’, ‘What else might I have contracted?’ and ‘Who do I need to tell?’ are all common and totally 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 herpes virus family Herpesviridae. HSV-2 is the main culprit of genital herpes, though the cold sore causing HSV-1 can also spread to the genitals.
Transmission from one person to another usually occurs during genital, anal or oral sex.
Symptoms can range from ‘holy mother of god!’ to ‘meh’ – some people regularly get blisters that turn into painful ulcers, others experience no obvious signs at all.
Flu-like symptoms or a painful back and buttocks are also common.
There is no known cure for genital herpes. However, the disease is easily treated and managed with antiviral medication.
But enough of the sciencey stuff, let’s sort fact from fiction.
Myth: Only floozies, players and those with indiscriminate sexual partner proclivities get genital herpes
Sure, it’s only a matter of time before someone hell-bent on having unprotected sex with as many people as possible gets genital herpes (and many other STIs). But the simple fact is the virus is so common and so easily transmitted, anyone outside of an uninfected, monogamous relationship can contract it.
It’s a scary statistic, but around 80% of those infected don’t even know they have it!
You can get genital herpes even if you’re only remotely sexually active – no matter how safe and protected your sexual escapades are.
Myth: No glove, no love – condoms stop the transmission of genital herpes
Using condoms certainly helps reduce the chance of catching or passing on the disease, but it’s by no means fail-safe.
This unfortunate fact exists for two reasons: firstly, the lesions caused by genital herpes can form anywhere around the genitals. Contact with these lesions transmits the virus in the majority of cases. Condoms only protect one’s penis from direct transmission.
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.
Secondly, it’s estimated 40% of genital herpes is transmitted through oral sex1. Condoms and dental dams are rarely used and don’t offer complete protection.
You need to become a nun and remain celibate until your dying day to be 100% safe from catching genital herpes (though I’m sure even a few nuns have a little secret).
Myth: You say goodbye to your sex life when you say hello to your new friend
Complete rubbish. Genital herpes doesn’t define you or your sex life.
Antiviral medication is very effective in reducing the severity, frequency and duration of outbreaks. And since contagious periods mostly only occur during outbreaks, you can enjoy a normal sex life if you have the virus.
The primary determinant of great sex within a relationship, in my opinion, is communication and acceptance – flaws and all. Perfection doesn’t exist.
In a lovely example of looking on the bright side of life, I recently consulted with a couple who had become a lot closer since one trusted the other with their herpes diagnosis. Who would’ve thought?
Myth: Having children is out of the question when you have the virus
Genital herpes doesn’t affect your fertility. Don’t let anyone tell you any different. It’s simply a skin condition that has minimal impact on your health otherwise.
People who claim this myth are likely referencing chlamydia and gonorrhoea – the nasty STIs that can cause infertility in both men and women.
I’ve heard crazy theories that genital herpes also increases women’s chance of cervical cancer, which can severely affect fertility. Again, total poppycock. An STI known human papilloma virus (HPV) is linked to cervical cancer and is relatively easily detected. Reliable HPV vaccines exist.
Women with the virus also give birth to perfectly healthy babies. Even if an outbreak occurs around the time of vaginal delivery, the risk of neonatal herpes is incredibly small.
Myth: While you’re down there, can you check me for herpes?
The answer to this request is generally ‘No’. Tests for genital herpes aren’t usually done unless you are exhibiting physical symptoms.
Standard swab tests in the absence of symptoms – similar to the ones used to detect chlamydia and gonorrhoea – won’t pick up the presence of HSV-2. Blood tests will only show if you’ve been exposed to antibodies, which is most of the adult western population anyway.
If you have lesions around your genitals, swabs need to be taken directly from the sores and sent away for lab testing. However, your GP will have a pretty good idea from the way the lesions look. They’ll likely prescribe antiviral medication while you await test results.
So, rest assured the sky isn’t going to fall in and you’re not going to get condemned to a quarantined desert island if you have genital herpes.
Like the other millions of Australians living with the virus, it’s usually very manageable and has little impact on anyone’s life.
Please speak with your GP if you have any concerns.
Dr Elaine Sung is the owner and principal GP at Doctors of South Melbourne. Her areas of special interest include sexual health, women’s health and mental health. You can book an appointment with Elaine here.