Medically Reviewed by Dr Danae Maragouthakis
Herpes is one of the most stigmatised and misunderstood sexually transmitted infections (STIs). As such, you’ve probably heard plenty of stories and supposed facts about herpes over the years. But is herpes so common that many of us have it and don’t even know? Could that be true? And if so, why is something so common still so stigmatised and misunderstood?
Let’s start by taking a closer look at herpes to find out how common it really is. Then we’ll cover what to expect if you’ve got it, and ways in which it can be prevented.
What is Herpes?
Herpes is caused by infection with the herpes simplex virus, of which there are two main types: HSV-1 or HSV-2. It’s characterised by small blisters or ulcers that can technically affect anywhere on the body, depending on how and where someone comes into contact with the virus.
For the purposes of this article, we will be focusing on herpes in three specific areas: the mouth, genitalia, or anus.
When these ulcers or blisters appear around the mouth, they are often referred to as “cold sores,” while those around the vagina, penis, and/or anus are called “genital herpes”.
However not everyone with the virus will develop these lesions! So, they may never know they were infected in the first place, making it easier to unintentionally pass it on!
How Common Is Herpes?
In 2016 the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimated that approximately 67% of the global population had been infected with HSV-1 (either orally or gentially). In the UK, approximately 70% of people will have herpes, either HSV-1 or HSV-2, by the age of 25. So in short, herpes is extremely common - both in the UK and around the world.
How Does Herpes Spread?
Herpes is transmitted through skin-to-skin contact, which commonly occurs during kissing, oral sex, vaginal sex, and anal sex. But penetration isn’t required to spread the virus because herpes can be passed on through simply touching an infected area!
It’s important to note that herpes can spread through non-sexual behaviors, too. For instance, children can pick up the infection from one another in the nursery by coming into contact with contaminated saliva.
Herpes is most transmissible when an infected person has sores and blisters in the affected area. However most people never develop herpes symptoms, and so 80% of people who have it don’t even know!
And people with herpes don’t always need to be experiencing an active outbreak to spread the infection. Those who don’t have any sores or other symptoms can sometimes still pass the virus on to someone else. When this happens, it’s called “asymptomatic shedding”.
The good news is that herpes does NOT spread through inanimate objects. Since the virus doesn’t survive long outside the body, it’s safe to share toilet seats, towels, sheets, or clothes.
How Does Herpes Present, and How Long Do Outbreaks Last?
Herpes can affect different people to varying degrees.
A herpes outbreak presents as blisters or ulcers around the mouth, genitals, and/or anus. Initial symptoms typically begin to develop between two and twenty days after exposure to the virus.
At first you might feel like you have the flu, with symptoms such as fever, headaches, body aches, and swollen lymph nodes. You may also begin to feel an itching, burning, or tingling sensation at the site of infection. This is when you might discover a small cluster of blisters or bumps.
Within a day or two, these blisters will burst and develop into painful ulcers. The ulcers will crust over in one to two weeks, with most having fully healed by week three, leaving little to no trace behind.
After the initial outbreak, there’s a chance for repeat outbreaks to occur, especially in those with HSV-2. However subsequent outbreaks are shorter and less severe, and the number of outbreaks tends to decrease with time.
Again, many people with herpes don’t develop signs or symptoms, but it doesn’t mean they can’t pass on the infection! Even for those who do develop symptoms, they are sometimes so mild that the infection goes unnoticed!
Can Herpes Be Cured or Treated?
Unfortunately, there isn’t a cure for the herpes virus. However it can be effectively managed with antiviral medicines to help mitigate symptoms and reduce the chances of future outbreaks.
While some people try home remedies for herpes, like putting cornstarch on blisters or using aloe vera, these are not medically recognised treatments, as there isn’t enough scientific evidence to support their use. If you need help managing herpes symptoms, we always recommend that you consult a medical professional.
What Can I Do to Prevent Herpes?
Although herpes is very common, there are some things you can do to reduce the risk of picking up or passing on the virus.
- Practice safe sex by using condoms or other barrier methods
- Don’t kiss or have sex if you or your partner(s) is experiencing an active outbreak
- Thoroughly and regularly wash your hands, especially after touching an affected area
If I Have Herpes, Should I Tell My Partner(s)?
If you know you have herpes, then you should tell your sexual partner(s). Honesty is an important part of any relationship, and it allows you both to better prepare for having sex more safely.
When is it safe to have sex? Whether it’s with existing partner(s) or someone new, you should stop having sex as soon as you experience the warning signs of an outbreak. You should not engage in any type of sexual activity during an outbreak, (even if you’re using protection), and you should wait to resume sexual activity until seven days after the sores heal. Between outbreaks, it’s generally safe to continue having sex, but you should always use barrier methods to minimise the risk of spreading the virus. Finally, there are certain medications that people with herpes can take to help suppress outbreaks and reduce herpes transmission.
If Herpes Is So Common, Why Is It So Embarrassing?
People often feel afraid or ashamed when they find out they have herpes. Why is that, considering herpes is so common? These negative associations exist largely because of the societal stigma and misconceptions that still surround the infection. In these circumstances, the stigma itself can sometimes cause more harm than the actual virus.
Many people fear herpes because it’s an STI that currently has no cure. So one of the best ways to combat this ill-informed stereotype is through better education. And who knows, a cure or vaccine for herpes could soon be on the horizon!
Living with Herpes? Everything Will Be Fine!
Herpes is unlikely to cause any lasting damage to your body or internal organs. It’s extremely common, too, so you should know that you are not alone. If you’re in need of additional support, there are a number of groups you can reach out to, including:
Remember, herpes is a condition that can be so well managed that people with it go on to live completely normal lives – both in and out of the bedroom.