Most people have a general idea about what herpes is, but pop culture and many of our peers have a way of perpetuating false information on exactly what herpes is and who is at risk of contracting it. As a result of these common myths, many people forgo getting tested and risk not only going without treatment for themselves but also accidentally spreading it to their partners. To help clear up some of these misconceptions, below is some basic information on what herpes is, some common symptoms, and all you need to know about testing for herpes so that you can keep yourself fully informed on your sexual health.
What Is Herpes?
The truth is, almost everyone has had at least one type of herpes in their lifetime. That is because herpes is categorized into two types of viruses: herpes simplex virus 1 (HSV-1) and herpes simplex virus 2 (HSV-2). HSV-1 is more commonly known as a cold sore or a fever blister and can be transmitted through direct oral contact, such as kissing or sharing eating utensils. HSV-2is otherwise known as genital herpes; it is the strain of viruses that most people are thinking about when they talk about herpes. It is spread through unprotected sexual contact with someone who has genital herpes.
A common misconception regarding sexually transmitted infections (STDs) like genital herpes is that they are caused only by having unprotected sex with multiple partners, but it is important to remember that it only takes one encounter with someone who has herpes to contract the virus. That is why one key factor in preventing herpes is making sure you know the health status of any intimate partner, as you have zero chance of contracting herpes from someone who does not have it already. Using condoms correctly and taking anti-viral medications can also greatly reduce your chances of contracting an infection.
While rare, it is also technically possible for someone with a cold sore to spread the infection to their partner via oral sex, so if you have a cold sore you should use a condom or dental dam until the outbreak clears up. Experiencing an outbreak greatly increases your chances of passing genital herpes on to your partner. You should also be aware, however, that it is still possible to pass it on even when the infection is dormant. You can learn more about risk factors for contracting herpes by going here.
Symptoms of Herpes
Both strains of herpes (HSV-1 and HSV-2) are characterized by outbreaks of blisters that give way to painful sores. These outbreaks alternate between active and dormant periods. Dormant periods are when you experience no symptoms but still have the virus. The blisters caused by HSV-1 (aka cold sores) tend to remain around the mouth, while genital herpes tends to affect the genitals and anus, as the name implies.
Although you can’t always control outbreaks, some factors can greatly increase your chances of experiencing one. These include factors that weaken your immune system, such as illness, sleep deprivation, AIDS, and chemotherapy. Other factors include stress, menstruation, and certain medications. Living a healthy lifestyle and taking certain medications can help reduce the occurrence of outbreaks.
Those with genital herpes can also experience discharge from the genitals, painful and burning sensations, and difficulty urinating. Everyone’s experience during an outbreak is different. For some, the pain may be mild. For others, it may be excruciating. Generally, however, the first few outbreaks are the most painful as well as the most frequent. With time, outbreaks naturally become less painful and less frequent.
Fortunately, even though there is no cure for herpes, there are options for managing the symptoms. Taking a warm bath is a natural remedy to minimize pain, though if that doesn’t completely manage the symptoms, a doctor can prescribe medication.
It should be noted, however, that some people can have herpes and not experience symptoms. This is why it is important for you to get tested even if you or your partner have never experienced an outbreak.
Testing for Herpes
The easiest way to diagnose herpes is visually, through the presence of an outbreak. The patient describes their symptoms to a doctor and undergoes a physical exam. To confirm the visual diagnosis, a doctor can take a cell culture from an open sore and look at it under a microscope to check for the herpes simplex virus. There are limits to a cell culture test; you can’t be tested if you aren’t experiencing an outbreak and a healing sore might not reveal the virus, which can result in a false negative. The most accurate method for testing for herpes is for a doctor to perform a blood test.
Herpes Blood Test
The most common and accurate test for genital herpes is a blood test called the PCR blood test. The best part about the PCR blood test is that not only is it extremely accurate, it also can be used whether or not a person is experiencing symptoms. One drawback is that it can take time for herpes simplex antibodies to show up in the blood (up to several weeks after exposure). This is why it is important to get tested regularly. It also can’t tell a person how recently they were exposed.
How Much Is a Herpes Test?
Although some insurance plans cover STD testing, many prefer to pay for testing out of pocket. The price will depend on the clinic and whether you are doing the test in conjunction with other tests, but expect to pay a minimum of $50 for just a herpes test.
If you are sexually active, it is your social responsibility to learn as much as you can about STDs and get yourself tested regularly. That includes educating yourself about herpes and deciding which test is right for you, even if you have never noticed any symptoms. To gauge your risk of herpes, try our FREE STD Risk Calculator.