Island Sexual Health Society Be informed, not surprised!

hand holding a pink latex oral dam

Oral dams like the one pictured here reduce the risk of herpes transmission during oral sex.

Genital herpes symptoms, testing and treatment

Herpes is a common sexually transmitted infection caused by  the Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV). There are two types of the viruse: herpes simplex virus 1 (HSV-1) and herpes simplex virus 2 (HSV-2). HSV-1 is commonly called “cold sores” and found around the mouth. It can be passed to the genital area through oral sex. HSV-2 is most commonly found in the genital area but it could be passed to the mouth during oral sex.  The majority of people will have at least one type of HSV in their lifetime. People may be not be aware they have HSV because they do not experience symptoms.

Make an appointment at any of our clinics in Greater Victoria to get tested for herpes, or to find out more.

For further reading, see this excellent resource from BC Centre for Disease Control on Herpes

How herpes spreads

Approximately 20% of people in Canada have genital herpes and 50-70% have oral herpes.

  • Herpes is spread through direct contact with an infected area, usually during oral, anal or vaginal sex.
  • Herpes can be passed to a partner even when the infected person does not have an outbreak. This is called “asymptomatic shedding.”  It is less likely that the virus could be spread when sores are not visible, it is still possible.
  • Most infected people do not know they are infected but can still pass the virus to a sex partner.
  • An infected person can pass it on to a baby during vaginal childbirth.

Preventing herpes

To prevent herpes, use good sex safety skills including regular infection screening.

  • Using condoms can reduce your risk of transmission but the virus can still be spread through contact with an area that is not covered by the condom (buttocks, inner thighs).
  • Use condoms and oral dams to prevent transmission during oral sex.
  • Antiviral medication can decrease the risk of transmission
  • Personal products like razors and sex toys should not be shared.
  • Those with an active herpes outbreak should abstain from sexual activity of the symptom area with an un-infected partner as this is when they are most contagious.
  • Sex partners of infected persons should be aware that they may become infected even with the use of condoms or antiviral medications.

Make an appointment to get tested for herpes.

Herpes symptoms

About half the people with genital herpes do not have any symptoms and do not even realize they have the virus.

  • Herpes symptoms may not appear for months or even years.
  • For those who do have symptoms, herpes can cause itching, tingling or burning at the area where sores appear.
  • Usually the first outbreak is more severe than subsequent outbreaks and can be accompanied by flu-like symptoms, swollen glands, fever, body aches.
  • The body stores the virus in a dormant state and it can become active at any time in the future. Sometimes the virus is re-activated by stress, illness, sun exposure, menstrual cycles, lack of sleep, alcohol.
  • Some people never get a second outbreak while others get outbreaks more frequently. Healthy lifestyles and stress management may reduce symptoms from re-curing.

Risks and Complications

  • The herpes virus stays with you and can cause recurrent blisters or sores (the symptoms can vary greatly) from time to time.
  • Often the diagnosis of herpes causes psychological distress – it’s important to get accurate information and support for any worries you may have.
  • Rarely genital herpes can cause infection in babies. This is most likely if a person has experienced their first outbreak near the delivery time. Doctors and midwives can help with this.
  • Very rarely HSV can cause serious illness (ocular herpes,meningitis, encephalitis).

Herpes tests and diagnosis

  • Herpes is diagnosed by testing a swab of the infected area. It is important to have the swab collected as soon as possible after the sore appears.
  • Between outbreaks, it is difficult to diagnose herpes as blood tests are rarely done. There is a fee for testing and it will only indicate the type of herpes a person is infected with. The blood test will not tell us how long the person has had the infection, where symptoms may present again or if they will have future outbreaks.

Herpes treatment

  • There is no cure for herpes but medications are available to treat the symptoms. It is not necessary to treat herpes.
  • Antiviral medications can shorten the length and intensity of the outrbreaks and reduce the risk of passing the virus to a partner. These medications are best used if they are stated as soon as possible after symptoms occur.
  • Daily medication (“suppressive therapy”) can reduce the risk of transmission to partners.
  • During your first outbreak, it is important to try not to touch the sores, and wash your hands often to prevent spreading the virus to other areas of your body.

People will herpes have fulfilling and healthy sexual lives. Often when a person is first diagnosed, they worry about how having herpes will change their sexual relationships. Having herpes does not need to diminish the quality of your  sexual relationships. Our job at ISH, is to make sure you have the most current and factual information and you feel supported.