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Herpes 101

Frequently asked questions about genital herpes

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What is genital herpes?
Genital herpes is caused by a virus called the herpes simplex virus (HSV) that travels from the skin to the nervous system where it stays in the body. There are two types: HSV-1 and HSV-2. Some people do not have any symptoms, some do not recognize symptoms and some have symptoms anywhere below the waist or above the thigh. Symptoms might include tingling, itching, sores, blisters, splits, cuts, bumps, pimples, redness, aches and pains in the genital area, or flu-like symptoms. These symptoms can reappear (called “a recurrence”) weeks, months, or years later. Anything that could weaken your immune system (such as illness, poor diet or sleep, emotional or physical stress) could allow a recurrent outbreak. Symptoms usually heal within two to 12 days, but can last longer.

How did I get genital herpes?
Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted infection that is spread from skin-to-skin contact in one of two ways: by receiving oral sex from someone who has oral HSV infection or by having genital-to-genital or genital-to-anal contact with someone who has genital herpes. Although genital herpes can be spread by an infected person who has symptoms (“an outbreak”), it can be spread between outbreaks or when there are no symptoms (called “asymptomatic viral shedding”). In most cases, it is difficult to know how long you have had genital herpes, who gave it to you, and how long they may have had it.

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Myths and Misconceptions about Herpes: What’s True and What’s False

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Perhaps the best tool we have to fight the social stigma of herpes is information. Ignorance and misinformation create fear and fuel the development of stigmatizing attitudes and behavior. As a knowledgeable reader of The Helper, you can easily separate fact from fiction, myth from reality. But for others in your life who may be less informed, we’ve created this list of the most common misconceptions about herpes to arm you with the language and facts to use to educate others. Consider it a handy clip-and save piece to pass on to a friend!

False: It’s shameful to have genital herpes.
True: Anyone who has ever had sex can get genital herpes. It’s not about being clean, dirty, bad or good—it’s about being sexually active. A person can get genital herpes if they receive oral sex, if they have vaginal sex, if they have anal sex, or if their genitals touch another person’s genitals. Nearly 1 out of 4 people in the U. S. have genital herpes.

False: People know if they have genital herpes.
True: Most people who have herpes do not know it. As many as 90% of people who have genital herpes do not know they have it because they have very mild symptoms or no symptoms at all. Many people have symptoms, but don’t think they are caused by herpes.

False: Many exams and screenings check for herpes.
True: Pap tests, routine physical exams and most STI screenings do not check for herpes. If a person has symptoms of genital herpes, getting a viral culture is best. If there are no symptoms present, a blood test can be done. There are many blood tests, but some are not accurate. A “type-specific IgG blood test” is best.

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