Myths and Facts About Herpes

"Most people wouldn't be ashamed of having a cold sore, yet essentially that's what genital herpes is - a cold sore in a different place."

Myth: A person can usually predict when their herpes may be contagious.

Fact: The herpes virus can be active on the surface of the skin without showing any signs or causing any symptoms.

Myth: A person can only spread the herpes virus during an outbreak.

Fact: A person can spread the virus even when there is no an outbreak. In fact, one study found that up to 70% of people who had herpes got it from their partner when the partner had no signs or symptoms of an outbreak.

Myth: Condoms provide complete protection against spreading genital herpes.

Fact: Condoms provide only partially protection against herpes virus infections. Condoms reduce the risk of transmitting genital herpes, however, they do not entirely eliminate the risk. Condoms may not cover all the areas where the herpes virus may be present, so they aren't 100% effective in preventing the spread.

Myth: Besides abstaining from sex during outbreaks and using condoms, there is more you can do to reduce the risk of spreading herpes.

Fact: Yes, it's truth. Antiviral medications acyclovir (Zovirax®), famciclovir (Famvir®) and valacyclovir (Valtrex®) all suppress symptomatic and asymptomatic viral shedding. These drugs have been shown in clinical trials to reduce asymptomatic HSV shedding by about 80 - 90%.

Myth: HSV-1 causes a mild infection that is occasionally bothersome, but never dangerous.

Fact: HSV-1 is usually mild, especially when it infects the lips, face, or genitals. However, in some cases herpes virus type 1 can recur spontaneously in the eye, causing ocular herpes, a potentially serious infection which can lead to blindness. In very rare cases HSV- 1 can spread spontaneously to the brain, causing herpes encephalitis, a dangerous infection that can lead to death. HSV-1 is also the usual cause of herpes whitlow, an infection on the finger, and "wrestler's herpes," (herpes gladiatorum) a herpes infection on the chest or face. Researchers are finding herpes type 1 to be more "risky" than previously perceived. Some medical professionals are finding herpes type 1 to be a more "significant" infection than herpes type 2 and the prevalence of type 1 is severely underestimated.

Myth: HSV-2 is a painful, dangerous infection that affects only people with very active sex lives.

Fact: Nearly 22% of adult Americans from all backgrounds, income levels, and ethnic groups have HSV-2. Like HSV-1, type 2 is usually mild, so mild that two- thirds of infected people don't even know they have it. HSV-2 rarely causes complications or spreads to other parts of the body. It is the most common cause of neonatal herpes, a rare but dangerous infection in newborns, however, HSV-1 causes up to one-third of neonatal infections.

Myth: Only promiscuous people get genital herpes.

Fact: Genital herpes can affect anyone regardless of age, race or gender. It is a sexually transmitted disease (STD), however, the number of sexual partners is not a factor in contracting the disease as, contrary to other STDs, genital herpes persists indefinitely and can be transmitted for many years, perhaps for life.

Myth: No cure equals no treatment. Herpes cannot be treated, and causes sores that itch, burn and never go away.

Fact: Although herpes cannot be cured, it is a manageable condition that can be treated. Antiviral medications can help stop herpes from multiplying and can be used to prevent recurrent outbreaks. After several years, you may experience fewer outbreaks or no outbreaks at all. It is possible to have an outbreak without any symptoms.

Myth: Genital herpes can only be transmitted via penetrative sex.

Fact: Transmission is most likely to occur during vaginal intercourse, oral or anal sex. The majority of transmissions occur when herpes blisters or sores are not present.

Myth: Oral sex is safe sex. Cold sores can not be transferred to the genital area during oral sex.

Fact: Cold sores can be transmitted during oral sex and can ultimately cause genital herpes.

Myth: Herpes can be transmitted via inanimate objects, like toilet seats.

Fact: The herpes virus dries out when it is exposed to air, and is quite fragile. There have been no proven cases of genital herpes transmission from a toilet seat. Let's even say that someone has a buttocks lesion and sits down on a toilet and leaves virus on the seat. In order for transmission to happen, the next person that comes into the bathroom has to come in very quickly, since virus probably wouldn't live long on a cold, dry surface. But in addition to that, the next person would need a break in the buttocks skin at exactly the same location where the virus was on the toilet seat, and exact match. Virus does not penetrate intact buttocks skin, nor it is shed from intact buttocks or thigh skin. The skin is too thick to shed; shedding occurs from genital skin or mucus membranes. So that covers toilet seats, the most common suspected culprit for non-human to human transmission.

Myth: If you are in a monogamous relationship and get genital herpes, your partner must be cheating on you.

Fact: You or your partner may have contracted the virus from a sexual partner a long time ago, or, you or your partner may have had genital herpes all along without knowing it. Herpes outbreaks can occur with very mild symptoms that go unnoticed. So, the fact is, he or she may not have "cheated on you".

Myth: You can never have children if you get genital herpes.

Fact: Genital herpes does not affect fertility. However, it is possible a newborn baby can be infected with the herpes virus if your infection is active at the time of birth. This is avoided by performing a caesarean section to reduce the contact between the infection and the baby.

Myth: My partner has herpes but I have never had any symptoms, so I cannot be infected.

Fact: Only approximately 20% of people with genital herpes recognise they have the infection. Another 20% of those infected with HSV-2 experience no signs or symptoms and do not realise they have the virus. Around 60% of people carrying the virus have symptoms that do not fit the classical description of genital HSV infection and also fail to realise they have the virus. Thus, the vast majority of people with herpes do not realise they have been infected. The only way to know for certain whether infection has taken place is to have a test.

Myth: Asymptomatic viral shedding occurs only in a small percentage of patients with herpes and occurs right before or after an outbreak.

Fact: A majority of patients with herpes experience asymptomatic viral shedding which often occurs independent of outbreaks.

Myth: Asymptomatic viral shedding occurs only in patients who have a history of herpes.

Fact: Patients who are seropositive with no reported history of herpes shed virus asymptomatically at a rate similar to patients with a reported history of outbreaks (3.0% vs 2.7%, respectively).

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