It's not a pleasant topic, but if you're sexually
active you need to know about herpes. It's one of
the most common STD's contracted by adults.
"There are two forms of the herpes virus," says
Chris Baptiste, R.N., a nurse at Wilmington
Health Center in Wilmington, MA. "Cold sores or
oral herpes (HSV-1) appears on or around the
lips, while genital herpes (HSV-2) generally
appears below the waist on the genitals."
According to Planned Parenthood, the virus can be
spread through touching, kissing, or sexual
contact including anal, vaginal, and oral sex.
Herpes can be spread even when the infected
person is not having an outbreak of the virus.
Planned Parenthood explains that cold sores are
common in young children, who can contract them
from exposure to active cold sores of adults and
other children. Emily Watson*, a senior at
Norwich University, has had HSV-1 (oral herpes)
since she was a young child. "I can remember
having 'cold sores' as young as four or five,"
she says. "I am not sure where I was exposed to
the virus, but as I have gotten older the
outbreaks have not been as bad."
Obviously, genital herpes has different symptoms
than its slightly less offensive oral
counterparts. "The patient will feel an initial
tingling in the area where the lesion is going to
appear," says Lenny Sinclair, R.N., a nurse at
Burlington Medical in Burlington, MA. "It is
usually followed by pain. The virus lies in the
nerve root and produces painful lesions."
An individual's first genital herpes infection is
known as primary herpes. Symptoms include:
Other symptoms of primary herpes may include:
- Open sores
- Pain in the infected area
- Burning feelings if urine flows over the
- Inability to urinate if severely swollen from
If you notice these symptoms, you should see a
doctor as soon as possible.
- Swollen lymph glands in the groin, throat,
and under the arms
- General run down feelings
- Achy, flu-like symptoms
"The first outbreak can last as long as three
weeks," Sinclair says. "Recurrences usually last
between a week and ten days." Herpes can recur
several times a year ?on average, infected
persons experience four recurrences per year.
"Recurrences can be triggered by a variety of
things," Baptiste notes. "Cold sores can be
caused by stress or a compromise in the immune
"I tend to get cold sores in the winter," Emily
says. "The cold triggers attacks. I also catch
colds and the flu more often in the winter. A
majority of [cold sore] outbreaks are during or
after an illness."
To suppress outbreaks, patients can take oral
medications or apply topical creams directly to
the lesions. Planned Parenthood tells patients
that small daily doses of acyclovir,
famiciclovir, or valacyclovir may reduce the
frequency of outbreaks.
"Anti-viral medications can suppress the virus,"
Baptiste says. "But they do not get rid of it.
Medications can only lessen the severity of the
outbreak, not cure it."
"I have an acyclovir ointment that I use on my
oral herpes," Emily said. " I use the ointment
three to four times a day and the blister goes
away faster than when I don't use it."
Since there is no cure for herpes, it is
important to use condoms when having sex to
reduce the risk of contracting or spreading the
disease. "I don't think most people are aware of
how easy it is to contract herpes," says Mike
Forrester*, a sophomore at the University of
Massachusetts. "They know it exists but they just
don't think it could happen to them."
If a blister is present above the reach of the
condom, however, the virus can spread. It is
important to be honest about your sexual history
with your partner ?whether you have herpes or
"I think some people lie about their sexual
history," Mike says. "They are embarrassed to
admit they have an STD because they are afraid of
rejection. But what they don't realize is they
are endangering themselves and their partners by
not being honest."