The Call-On-Doc Guide to Herpes

Published on Apr 21, 2023 | 10:49 AM

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Herpes, also called the Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV), is a common medical condition. According to the World Health Organization, around 3.7 billion people worldwide have HSV-1 and 491 million are diagnosed with HSV-2. HSV-1 is the primary cause of oral herpes while HSV-2 is the most common cause of genital herpes. 

Also called herpes simplex virus or HSV, both HSV-1 and HSV-2 are commonly joked about in popular media due to the nature of the symptoms being very rarely life-threatening. While dangerous for women experiencing pregnancy due to herpes genital symptoms, what you might feel is anything from nothing at all to an aggravating irritation. 

What does herpes look like?

According to Johns Hopkins, there are two types of herpes: HSV-1 and HSV-2. The difference between the two primarily has to do with the areas of the body that they affect with HSV-1 affecting the mouth and HSV-2 affecting the groin. 

HSV-1 typically causes oral herpes, which can lead to the appearance of cold sores or fever blisters around the mouth or on the lips. These sores may be small, red, and painful and may eventually scab over before healing.

According to the CDC, HSV-2 is most often associated with genital herpes, which can cause blisters or sores on or around the genitals or rectum. These sores may be painful, itchy, and can last for several weeks before healing.

In both cases, herpes for men and women may also cause flu-like symptoms, such as fever, body aches, and swollen lymph nodes. Rashes or a herpes breakout of sores on different parts of the body are also possible for both HSV-1 and 2. 


How are HSV-1 and HSV-2 different?

While the differences between herpes HSV-1 and 2 are fairly straightforward, there are some differences in the look and location of outbreaks. 

HSV-1 typically causes cold sores or fever blisters around the mouth or on the lips, but it can also cause sores on the face, inside the mouth, and occasionally on the genitals.

HSV-2 primarily causes genital herpes, with symptoms such as painful blisters or sores on or around the genitals or rectum. However, HSV-2 can also cause oral herpes if transmitted through oral sex.

Not everyone will experience symptoms or will know to associate the less common symptoms with herpes. According to the CDC, most people with herpes will be asymptomatic and will have none of the symptoms exhibited here. If a person is infected with the condition, but shows no symptoms, they can still pass on the STD. 


How long can you have herpes without knowing?

It is possible to have herpes without knowing it, some may even go for long periods of time and only be made aware when other tests are run. In some cases, people with herpes may experience no symptoms or only mild symptoms that they may not recognize as being caused by herpes.

Additionally, some people may mistake herpes symptoms for those of another condition, such as a ​​yeast infection, a urinary tract infection, or even the flu, due to uncommon symptoms. This can delay the diagnosis and treatment of herpes.

If you think you or a loved one has herpes, or you've been exposed, you can get herpes treatment privately from the comfort of home with Call-On-Doc. Available day, night, weekend, or holiday, you can start a consultation with a medical provider instantly online and have your prescription ready to pick-up in a few hours. If needed, your partner can also get treated for half off.

Are symptoms of herpes different in men vs women?

The first signs of herpes symptoms can vary between men and women, but both genders may experience similar symptoms. The most common symptoms of herpes include:

  • Pain or itching around the genital area
  • Small red bumps or white blisters on the genitals or anus
  • Swollen lymph nodes in the groin area
  • Painful urination or difficulty urinating
  • Penile/vaginal discharge
  • Flu-like symptoms such as headache, fever, and fatigue

While herpes symptoms in women vs men are similar, it is important to note that what is felt varies by case. Some may only experience mild herpes symptoms if any at all and some will have an entirely noticeable herpes breakout that inhibits some functions. 

Can herpes kill you?

According to Planned Parenthood, herpes for men and women is not a life-threatening condition and most who are infected with the virus do not experience serious health problems. However, there are rare cases where herpes infections can lead to serious complications, particularly in people with weakened immune systems.

For example, in people with HIV/AIDS, herpes infections can be more severe and can lead to serious health problems such as meningitis, encephalitis (inflammation of the brain), and even death. In rare cases, herpes infections can also cause severe respiratory problems in newborns who contract the virus during delivery.

What is the main cause of herpes?

According to the American Academy of Dermatology Association, both types of herpes can be transmitted by sharing items or through close contact with an infected person, such examples include:

  • Kissing
  • Sexual contact
  • Sex toys
  • Razors 
  • Toothbrushes

Contraction of herpes through the sharing of food and drink is much rarer due to the rate at which the virus dies when outside of its optimal environment. However, the virus can be transmitted even if an infected person does not have visible sores or symptoms. Once a person is infected with herpes, the virus remains in the body for life and can cause periodic outbreaks of sores or blisters, particularly during times of stress or illness. 

Can a faithful couple get herpes?

As mentioned, herpes in men and women does not go away. A faithful couple can get herpes if one or both partners were previously infected with the herpes virus before starting the relationship. Getting herpes can also happen without any sexual relationship, for example, roommates can share a razor or toothbrush and spread herpes.

Asymptomatic herpes is also entirely possible like other sexually transmitted diseases with many cases going dormant for significant periods or from the point of infection. It is important for those that have had previous sexual relationships to get tested before entering into a new one. 

What are the biggest herpes triggers?

Similar to how a rash may break out in reaction to external stimuli, a herpes breakout has multiple causes that vary from person to person. According to WebMD, there are a number of triggers that play into when herpes in men and women. Here are a number of examples to watch out for:

  • Stress: According to a 1998 study, emotional or physical stress can weaken the immune system and trigger herpes outbreaks. This is due to stress straining the immune system and causing the best conditions for the STD to flair up. 
  • Illness: In the case of a cold or the flu, or other illnesses that weaken the immune system, herpes symptoms and an outright outbreak can easily arise. As detailed by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the virus reactivates in the spine and breaks out in vulnerable areas when detecting hormonal changes or stress on the body.
  • Sun exposure: According to a 2004 study, exposure to sunlight, especially on the lips, can trigger oral herpes outbreaks.
  • Menstruation: As highlighted in a 2020 study, hormonal changes during the menstrual cycle can trigger genital herpes outbreaks in women. More specifically, menstruation and the taking of medication that affects a woman’s hormones can cause herpes symptoms to flair up when patients are infected with HSV-2. 
  • Sexual activity: Friction during sexual activity can irritate the skin and trigger herpes outbreaks. This does not necessarily mean the virus has gone dormant, but rather because the already active lumps caused by herpes symptoms can get irritated. 
  • Alcohol and drug use: Drinking alcohol excessively or using drugs can weaken the immune system and trigger herpes outbreaks.
  • Surgery or injury: Physical trauma, such as surgery or injury, can weaken the immune system and trigger herpes outbreaks. 

What is the best test to diagnose herpes?

The most common test used to diagnose herpes is a herpes viral culture. During this test, a healthcare provider like Call-On-Doc will take a sample of fluid from a blister or sore and send it to a laboratory to be tested for the herpes simplex virus.

Another common test for herpes is a herpes blood test, which detects the presence of antibodies to the virus in the blood. This test can determine if a person has been infected with herpes, even if they have never had visible symptoms. However, it cannot determine the location of the infection or if the infection is currently active.

In some cases, a healthcare provider may also perform a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test to diagnose herpes. This test detects the genetic material of the herpes virus in a sample of fluid from a blister or sore.

Can a doctor diagnose herpes without a test?

Call-On-Doc can diagnose and treat herpes online without a lab test. For more information on why we can treat without lab testing, read this blog.

Call-On-Doc lets you get tested or treated from the comfort and privacy of your home and is available day, night, weekend, and holidays so you can get the care you need. We also offer half-off partner treatment so you can both stay sexually healthy.

Why isn't herpes included in STD testing?

Herpes is not routinely included in standard sexually transmitted disease testing because the blood tests for herpes can be less reliable than tests for other STDs, and many people with herpes do not experience symptoms or have mild symptoms that go unnoticed.

Additionally, herpes is a very common virus, with an estimated 1 in 6 people in the United States infected with genital herpes and even more with oral herpes. Given the high prevalence of the virus, some healthcare providers may not routinely test for herpes unless a patient specifically requests it or has visible symptoms.

How herpes is treated

Entirely manageable with the right medication, prescriptions like Acyclovir and Valacyclovir have proven to reduce most cases of herpes into dormancy. In addition to antiviral medications, people with herpes can take steps to manage their symptoms and reduce the risk of transmitting the virus to others. This can include:

  • Keeping the affected area clean
  • Avoiding sexual activity during outbreaks
  • Using condoms or other barrier methods during sexual activity
  • Practicing good hygiene, including washing hands frequently
  • Getting enough rest 
  • Reducing stress
  • Maintaining a healthy diet 

Can herpes be cured?

Currently, there is no cure for herpes. Once a person is infected with herpes, the virus remains in their body for life. However, antiviral medications can help manage the symptoms and reduce the frequency and duration of outbreaks. These medications can also help reduce the risk of transmitting the virus to others.

What happens if herpes goes untreated?

Untreated herpes symptoms may become more severe and the virus can be spread to others more easily. Untreated herpes for men and women can also increase the risk of developing other health problems, such as:  

  • Increased risk of HIV: Herpes sores can make it easier to contract HIV if a person is exposed to the virus. This is because the open sores provide a direct route for the virus to enter the body.
  • Meningitis: Herpes can cause inflammation of the lining of the brain and spinal cord, which can lead to meningitis. This is more common in people with weakened immune systems.
  • Encephalitis: Herpes can also cause inflammation of the brain itself, which can lead to encephalitis. This is a rare but serious complication of herpes.
  • Neonatal herpes: If a pregnant woman has herpes, there is a risk that the virus can be passed on to her baby during delivery. This can be a serious and potentially life-threatening condition for the baby.

Can I prevent getting herpes?

If a person with herpes begins taking antiviral medications as soon as possible after an outbreak begins, it may be possible to stop the outbreak in its tracks and prevent it from becoming more severe. It is important to start treatment as soon as possible, ideally within the first 48 hours of symptoms appearing.

If a person has been exposed to herpes, there are steps that they can take to reduce their risk of developing the infection or to minimize the severity of herpes symptoms if they do become infected. These include:

  • Taking antiviral medication: If a person has been exposed to herpes, their healthcare provider may recommend taking antiviral medication to reduce the risk of developing an outbreak or to reduce the severity of symptoms if an outbreak occurs.
  • Practicing good hygiene: Washing the hands frequently and keeping the affected area clean and dry can help prevent the spread of the virus.
  • Avoiding sexual activity: If a person has been exposed to herpes, it is important to avoid sexual activity until they know whether they have become infected or not. This can help prevent the spread of the virus to others.
  • Using condoms: If a person is sexually active and has been exposed to herpes, using condoms or other barrier methods during sexual activity can help reduce the risk of transmitting the virus to their partner.

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Wayne C. Hahne,

English graduate and Call-On-Doc’s medical resource guide, Wayne C. Hahne is an experienced and passionate medical education content expert. Through diligent research, provider interviews and utilizing the industry's leading resources for wellness information, it is Mr. Hahne’s personal mission to educate the general public on medical conditions with in-depth and easy-to-understand written guides.

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