Genital herpes: 10 common myths
1. Genital herpes is an uncommon condition.
Genital herpes is a common virus infection that affects about one in 8 Australian adults. However, many people with genital herpes have no symptoms or have not recognised their symptoms as herpes infection.
2. Only promiscuous people get genital herpes.
Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted infection (STI), and your chance of contracting it does increase with the number of sexual partners you have had in your life. However, you can catch it even if you have had just one or two sexual partners. In contrast to other STIs, the genital herpes virus persists in the body indefinitely and can be transmitted for many years, perhaps for life.
3. Condoms prevent genital herpes.
Condoms REDUCE the risk of transmitting genital herpes, and should be used, but they do not entirely remove the risk. This is because the condom may not cover all sites where the virus is being shed, or it may not remain in place during sex or it may break.
4. You always know when you have genital herpes because you have lesions.
Genital herpes affects different people in different ways - some people have lesions or ulcers but others have no symptoms at all. Only a small proportion of people affected by genital herpes have recognised infection. Most people with genital herpes infection have some symptoms but have not recognised the cause as herpes, and others have completely asymptomatic infection (no symptoms present).
5. Genital herpes cannot be treated.
Although genital herpes cannot be cured, it is a manageable condition that can be treated. Antiviral tablets can help stop the genital herpes virus multiplying and can be used to shorten outbreaks, to prevent outbreaks recurring and to reduce the chance of transmitting genital herpes to your partner.
6. Genital herpes can cause cervical cancer.
Genital herpes is not associated with cervical cancer. Cervical cancer is linked with another virus - the human papilloma virus (HPV). This virus causes warts and is also sexually transmitted. Women should have regular cervical screening tests to detect early cervical cancer. A vaccine is available against some strains of HPV.
7. A full STI test detects genital herpes.
A full STI test does not routinely include a test for genital herpes. The best way of making a diagnosis of genital herpes is to see a doctor when symptoms are present. A specimen will be taken and sent to a laboratory for analysis.
8. Genital herpes can only be transmitted via penetrative sex.
The genital herpes virus is transmitted through close physical (skin to skin) contact. This can be genital to genital contact or other skin contact with the genital area, not necessarily vaginal or anal sex.
Genital herpes can also be transmitted through oral sex if one partner has cold sores. This is because the cold sore virus belongs to the same family as the genital herpes virus (herpes virus family) and can cause sores in the genital area as well as on the face. Oral sex should therefore be avoided until sores have healed. Using condoms or dental dams during oral sex may reduce the risk of transmission.
9. Genital herpes can only be transmitted when you have lesions.
Herpes virus is easily transmitted when there are ulcers or blisters. However, transmission can occur when herpes blisters or sores are not present. This is because the herpes virus can be shed from the skin without any symptoms (asymptomatic viral shedding). It is thus important to use condoms or dental dams during sex if you have genital herpes, even when you have no lesions.
10. If you are in a monogamous relationship and get genital herpes, your partner must be having sex with someone else.
This doesn’t necessarily mean your partner has been having sex with someone else. You or your partner may have contracted genital herpes from a sexual partner a long time ago and not realised it. The symptoms of genital herpes can be very mild and go unnoticed. The virus persists in the body and can be transmitted, perhaps for life.
2. Australian Sexual Health Alliance. Australian STI Management Guidelines for use in primary care: Herpes (updated 10 May 2017). http://www.sti.guidelines.org.au/sexually-transmissible-infections/herpes (accessed Aug 2017).
3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Genital herpes – CDC fact sheet (reviewed 28 Aug 2017). http://www.cdc.gov/std/herpes/stdfact-herpes.htm (accessed Aug 2017).
4. BMJ Best Practice. Patient information from BMJ: Genital herpes (1 Dec 2016). http://bestpractice.bmj.com/best-practice/pdf/patient-summaries/532420.pdf (accessed Aug 2017).