What is Herpes?

Genital Herpes, HSV-2, is a sexually transmitted infection caused by the herpes simplex viruses. Most genital herpes is caused by HSV-2, which means there is no cure for it. Medicines only shorten the duration of the flare ups.

1. 1 million new cases per year and 45 million people infected in the United States.

(Source: CDC, Tracking the Hidden Epidemics: Trends in STDs in the U.S., Accessed Sept. 2008)

2. How common is genital herpes?

One in six Americans, 12 and older, has genital herpes. There are more individuals in the U.S. living with genital herpes than with any other STI; this is because a person who acquires a herpes infection remains infected for life.  It is caused by two main types of herpes simplex viruses:

HSV-1 - primary infection usually in childhood causing oral herpes or cold sores.

HSV-2 – Historically, genital herpes was usually caused by HSV-2, but the trend appears to be changing. Today 22% of the U.S. population or about 50 million people have HSV-2 infections. (Source: Ashley RL, Wald A. Genital herpes; review of the epidemic and potential use of type specific serology. Clin Microbiol Rev. 1999:12(1):1-8 Available at http://cmr.asm.org/cgi/reprint/12/1/1. Accessed September 3, 2005.)(Source: Medical Institute for Sexual Health, 2006)

3. What are the symptoms of herpes?

Most people infected with HSV-2 are not aware of their infection. If signs and symptoms occur during the outbreaks, they can be quite pronounced. The first outbreak usually occurs within two weeks after the virus is transmitted, and the sores typically heal within two to four weeks.

Blisters & sores - Small blisters appear and burst within a day or so to form ulcers. These can be very painful clusters, which are raw and may break open. In some cases, the sores may be minor and go unnoticed but can still be passed on to a partner. The sores will come and go; some people have frequent outbreaks, while others go years between outbreaks.

Flu-like symptoms - fatigue, fever, aches, general run-down feeling, nausea 2 to 7 days after exposure

You can get treatment for the symptoms, but you cannot cure the disease. You have it for life.  Recurrences cause physical and emotional stress.

More than 90% infected with HSV-2 have recurrence during first year.

4. How do you get Herpes Type 2?

This virus is usually transmitted by skin to skin contact, and direct contact with infected body fluids, such as semen or vaginal fluids. The virus can entering through small cuts/abrasions on the genitals, lips, mouth, or skin.  The virus causes a lesion at the point of entry and also travels “up” peripheral nerves to enter the nervous system where it resides. (Source: CDC Fact Sheet: Genital Herpes, Accessed June 25, 2010)

5. What is the treatment for Herpes Type 2?

There is no treatment that can cure herpes, but antiviral medications can shorten and prevent outbreaks during the period of time the person takes the medication.  In addition, daily suppressive therapy for symptomatic herpes can reduce, but not eliminate, the transmission to partners.

You can infect others even if you have no symptoms at the time.

Right before or during an outbreak, a person is highly contagious. Half of the people infected are not aware they are infected.  (Source:  FM Cowan, AM Johnson, R Ashley, British Medical Journal, 1994)

6. How does Herpes Type 2 affect an unborn baby?

If an infected woman has a baby, 30 to 50% of vaginally delivered infants become infected. The baby picks up the infection during the birth process. The baby may have mental disabilities or have neurological problems, though it’s rare. Doctors can deliver the baby by C-section to avoid infecting the baby. Half of the cases of newborn infection occur to mothers with no known history of genital herpes infection. (Source: Harger JH. “Genital herpes simplex infections.” In: Mead PB, Hager WD, Faro S, eds. Protocols for infectious Diseases in Obstetrics and Gynecology. 2nd ed. Malden, MA: Blackwell Science; 2000:366-379

7. Can condoms protect a person from Herpes Type 2?

Condoms have been shown to be ineffective in the prevention of genital herpes. Since the virus can be transmitted by skin to skin contact, condoms are less likely to be effective in reducing the transmission of Herpes than they are for infections transmitted by body fluids. Condoms do not cover all the skin in the genital area and sex with an infected person can result in an infection, even when condoms are used. Condoms, if used consistently and correctly, still leave a 50% or more chance of transmission. (Source: British Medical Journal, 1994 and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, May 2001)

8. How can genital herpes be prevented?

The most effective way to avoid transmission of sexually transmitted diseases, including genital herpes, is to abstain from sexual activity until marriage.