Many labels are given to someone who has a sexually transmitted disease (STD) with the immediate assumption being the person must be promiscuous.
According to Trudy Smith, Gynaecologist at Netcare Park Lane Clinic, this is definitely not the case when the STD in question is herpes. Many people who have it are in committed relationships where both partners have been faithful.
Here she tells us more about the virus and what it means for sufferers.
Please explain to our readers what herpes is?
Trudy Smith (TS): Herpes is a very common disease caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). There are two types of herpes: oral herpes, an infection on the lips and mouth, and genital herpes, an infection on the genital area and anus. Herpes can be transferred through kissing (if you or your partner have a cold sore on your mouth) as well as through vaginal, anal and oral sex.
What would the symptoms be?
TS: The symptoms for herpes are blisters on or around the genitals, rectum or mouth. The blisters can burst, leaving painful sores, which may take time to heal. Sufferers can also experience flu-like symptoms, such as body aches, a fever and swollen glands. Itching, discomfort and pain when urinating are also common symptoms of herpes.
Most people who have herpes exhibit no symptoms or very minor ones. This means you can have herpes and not be aware of it. However, the virus can still be transmitted even if you are not showing symptoms. This is why it is important to always use a condom when having sex once you have been diagnosed with herpes. The condom must cover the affected area completely, however.
How would a doctor determine if you have contracted the disease?
TS: Doctors can often diagnose it simply by examining the affected area, but they may also take a swab of the area, which is then sent to a pathology laboratory to determine whether you have been infected with the herpes virus.
Is it only promiscuous individuals who get herpes?
TS: This is definitely a misconception. People in long-term, committed relationships can start manifesting symptoms of herpes, which they contracted many years ago, because the virus can lie dormant in one’s body.
Can you catch genital herpes from someone with a cold sore?
TS: Yes. If an individual with a cold sore performs oral sex on their partner they can contract genital herpes. However, the virus does not “move around” the body, so if you have oral herpes it does not mean you necessarily have genital herpes.
What are the dangers for a person infected with herpes?
TS: If you have genital herpes, the risk of being infected with HIV is high if the person with whom you are having sex is HIV positive and the HIV in his or her vaginal fluid, blood or semen comes into contact with a herpes blister. Practising safe sex by using a condom can reduce your risk of contracting HIV, as long as the area affected by herpes is covered.
How is it treated on both a short- and long-term basis?
TS: There is no cure for herpes; however, its symptoms can be managed. Oral herpes can be treated relatively easily with creams you can buy from your pharmacy. The symptoms for genital herpes are usually treated with antiviral tablets, which stop the virus from multiplying but do not eradicate the virus completely from your body. The antiviral medication can be prescribed for a few days, or even six to 12 months in the case of recurrent infections.
Popular culture sees many jokes being made about herpes. What advice would you give to a person who is struggling to come to terms with their diagnosis?
TS: Remember that it is one of the most common sexually transmitted infections worldwide and its symptoms can be managed. Although it remains dormant in your body once treated, it can become active again. However, over time it becomes active less frequently and each time less severely.