People can be infected by eight types of herpes viruses, some of which are associated with childhood illnesses like chickenpox and roseola. When we talk about herpes, though, we typically focus on the two strains that are sexually transmitted: HSV-1 and HSV-2. Just how common is herpes?
These two strains are spread when the infected area comes into contact with broken skin, such as a cut, or mucous membranes like the lips and genitals.
It’s more common for HSV-1 to infect the mouth and HSV-2 to infect the genitals, but either strain can affect either place.
How Common Is Herpes?
Many may be wondering, just how common is herpes? Should people be taking steps to protect themselves? A recent report showed almost half of all adults under 50 had herpes simplex virus 1 (HSV-1). That’s more than 3 billion infected people worldwide.
What makes herpes so common is it can be spread whenever the virus is shedding, which can occur without the infected person ever knowing. This lack of symptoms makes prevention much more challenging. It can take one or more outbreaks for an infected person to realize they should avoid contact with others or seek medical treatment. Additionally, most schools don’t offer a well-rounded sex education programthat focuses on safe practices and preventive care.
HSV-1 is better known for causing cold sores. In the past, many people who got the disease were infected as children. As awareness of herpes grew and more people learned about prevention, people became more cautious of their children coming into contact with skin infections. This has prevented adolescents from developing antibodies to the virus before they become sexually active, which could explain the rise in genital infection rates.
What Are the Symptoms of Herpes?
Now that we know the answer to “how common is herpes?” it’s important to understand that most infections come with zero symptoms. In fact, about 90 percent of infected people aren’t even aware they have the virus. Sometimes it takes hearing from a partner about their infection to spur an STD test and learn someone has herpes.
Some may only experience very mild symptoms during an outbreak, like chapped lips and sores that look similar to a bug bite or pimple. It can also be easy to confuse a herpes sore for an ingrown hair.
More severe symptoms include fluid-filled blisters, which can appear on the lips, in the mouth and throat, and on the genitals and rectum. These blisters have a propensity for growing in clusters. Once these blisters break, they leave behind sores that can be painful and take a long time to heal. If symptoms begin to cause pain, people should seek immediate medical attention.
Some people don’t get blisters and instead react with flu-like symptoms, including fever, muscle aches and swollen glands. Luckily, most people only experience one outbreak in their lifetime.
Recurring outbreaks can range from severe and long-lasting to easily manageable. Although the infection stays in the body for years, most outbreaks become less severe and frequent over time.
A variety of treatment options are available for those who have the virus and are seeking relief, both from mild and severe symptoms.
Is Herpes Dangerous?
Herpes can never be cured. However, antiviral medication can help prevent outbreaks and lessen symptoms when they do occur.
For many, being infected with herpes does not constitute a crisis. They won’t experience symptoms and may be unaware they even have the virus. For others, the virus could simply be an inconvenience that requires extra lip balm.
Some of the symptoms, like blistering and swollen glands, can cause a lot of discomfort but won’t put someone’s overall health in jeopardy. That doesn’t mean the virus can’t be dangerous, though.
For people with suppressed immune systems, especially those with chronic health conditions, outbreaks can be more severe and dangerous than for others. Pregnant women and newborns are particularly at risk and, without treatment, outbreaks can cause miscarriage or premature birth. A mother can even pass herpes to her newborn during delivery, known as neonatal herpes, which is potentially deadly.
It’s important to seek treatment if someone learns they’ve been infected with herpes. Embarrassment or unwillingness to get help can lead to more serious issue down the road, including fertility problems.
How to Prevent Herpes
How common is herpes? Very. Rates of infection are already on the decline, though. The key to continuing this decline and eventually eradicating the virus is prevention.
To prevent transmission of herpes, people should:
- Use a condom during intercourse
- Use a dental dam for oral sex
- Limit number of sexual partners
- Get tested for STDs regularly
People can also educate themselves and learn about prevention tips by reading popular women’s blogs, which typically cover health topics including sexual health, STDs, pregnancy and more.
If someone thinks they’ve been exposed to the virus, they should not panic. Most symptoms won’t arise for one to two weeks after exposure. After that time, if a person begins to feel like they have the flu, such as muscle aches and fever, or develops small sores, they should make an appointment with their doctor.
People who have herpes are not alone. The virus is manageable and isn’t likely to negatively affect someone’s life. If the STD panel comes back negative, it’s important to stay protected and prevent infection.