Herpes - a chill and informative guide from BISH


Herpes is a treatable and often mild virus which isn’t as serious as it sounds.

(Here’s the more general guide to STIs)

This is about Herpes (HSV), which can be passed on through sex. It can be caught from oral, or entry sex or even just skin to skin contact. It’s easy to catch but it really isn’t that serious. Honest.

What is it?

There are loads of different kinds of Herpes, some cause chicken pox and glandular fever for instance. But we are talking about Herpes type 1 and type 2. Type 1 is mostly responsible for cold sores, which is very very common (often caught in childhood). Type 2 is genital herpes. They sound different, but really herpes 2 is just a cold sore too.

Herpes 1&2 can cause small blisters on the part of the skin affected, which can burst leaving a sore. It can also cause a flu-type illness. You can contract it from someone else by skin to skin contact. It is treatable with topical treatments (creams etc) and there are drugs available to prevent frequent outbreaks.

The outbreaks come and go, but the virus can remain in the body (dormant) when the outbreak has gone away. The body is very good at curing itself of herpes and outbreaks often only happen once. They might not come back or they might be more mild if they do.

Edit – the symptoms for some cases of monkeypox have a similarity to herpes. So maybe read about that too. Though monkeypox is much much less common.

How do we get herpes?

The truth is that you might already have it without knowing. Herpes 1 is very very common and herpes 2 is common. As with most STIs people can have it without realising because they don’t get symptoms. Or symptoms can be mild and unnoticeable, or the virus could be dormant within the body.

The most important thing to know is that you can only catch it from someone who has an outbreak, this includes the initial tingling stage before the blisters appear. During this period it’s best not to have sex without a condom or dam.

You can get facial herpes (herpes 1) from kissing someone who has a cold sore outbreak (or has a cold sore about to happen). It’s not just caught sexually – many many kids get cold sores. However you can also get herpes 1 from having oral sex with someone who has a cold sore outbreak. This would result in an outbreak of herpes 1 on the genitals. Herpes 1 is less likely to recur.

Herpes type 2 can be caught from having sex (or any intimate sexual contact). If someone has an outbreak, or is about to have an outbreak, then they could transmit this to someone else if the affected part of the body touches another person. For instance, if someone has an outbreak on the upper thigh then they could transmit this, whether they are wearing condoms or not.

If you think you have an outbreak of Herpes then you could head to your GP or sexual health service. All services are free and confidential in the UK. They may take a swab from one of the blisters to see if you have the virus. Or they’ll just look at it. Nowadays they may even be able to just look at a picture of it. They will advise you on treatment and prevention. Herpes isn’t routinely tested for in the UK unless someone has an outbreak.

Is it serious?

The truth is that it isn’t serious.

Like all STIs you should try to avoid getting it, but the worst thing about the infection is the stigma and hysteria caused by a lack of correct information. It doesn’t have any long term effects which other STIs have (though it can cause some complications during pregnancy which may result in a Caesarian section).

The Herpes Virus Association has a top website here, check out this by Dan Savage here and see this really good blog about how it’s really the stigma of herpes that is the problem.

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© Justin Hancock, 2023

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Justin Hancock has been a trained sex and relationships educator since 1999. In that time he’s taught and given advice about sex and relationships with thousands of young people in person and millions online. He’s a member of the World Association for Sexual Health.