Frequently Asked Questions
What is herpes?
How does someone get herpes?
How is HSV diagnosed?
Where can I get tested?
Is there a cure?
How can I prevent transmitting herpes?
What are the risks from herpes during pregnancy?
Is it normal to have strong emotional reactions to being diagnosed with herpes?
What can I do?
Is there any connection between herpes and HIV?
Where can I get more info on herpes?
Herpes simplex virus (HSV) is a virus that lives in the nervous system and causes sores on the skin or mucous membranes. Herpes simplex virus 1 (HSV-1) usually occurs in or around the mouth and herpes simplex virus 2 (HSV-2) usually occurs in the genital area, though HSV-1 can be found in the genital area as well.
HSV is transmitted through intimate sexual contact. The virus enters the skin or mucous membranes through small abrasions or cuts. The skin of the mouth and genitals is especially susceptible to herpes. HSV can be found on skin surfaces even when there are no oral or genital lesions present. HSV can be transmitted when there are no symptoms present.
HSV is diagnosed by testing for the virus from oral or genital lesions, or by testing the blood for HSV antibodies. When a lesion is present, it is always helpful to confirm it is due to HSV by doing a test for HSV by polymerase chain reaction (PCR), or nucleic acid amplification testing (NAAT) or by viral culture from the lesion. A positive PCR or viral culture can by “typed” to determine if it is HSV-1 or HSV-2.
Blood testing for HSV antibodies can be performed at any time during infection, even when there are no symptoms present. The antibodies may not develop until 2 months after someone has become infected. Antibody tests should be “type specific” and able to distinguish between HSV-1 and HSV-2. There are many commercially available type specific HSV antibody tests. However, some of these are limited by giving false positive results for HSV-2, particularly if someone is infected with HSV-1. The Western Blot, the “gold standard” HSV antibody test, is performed at the University of Washington.
If you are having oral or genital lesions, these can be tested for HSV by PCR/NAAT or culture through your local healthcare provider. Tests for HSV antibodies may also be available through your local healthcare provider. You can have your blood tested with a Western Blot at the University of Washington Virology Lab. To do this, have your health care provider call 206-520-4600 to request the HSV Type-Specific Serology information packet.
For more information, see the Herpes Blood Tests Quick Reference Guide provided by the American Social Health Association.
No. At this point there is not a cure but there is treatment available. There are prescription drugs available – Acyclovir (Zovirax), Valacyclovir (Valtrex) and Famciclovir (Famvir). These can be used during each episode or on a daily basis to prevent recurrences. These medications are particularly effective during the initial outbreak. Acyclovir ointment is ineffective and we do not recommend it.
There are no approved vaccines, but ongoing studies are testing the effectiveness of new vaccine products. Check out our studies page for more information on the clinical trials we have and are currently conducting.
The safer sex rule for preventing herpes transmission is: use latex barriers at all times and abstain from sexual activity when lesions are present. Be sure to tell your partner that you have herpes before having sex. It may also be helpful for both of you to get tested. It is not safe to assume that you or your partner do not have herpes, because a person can have it without knowing it. If you have HSV2 and your partner doesn’t, you can take suppressive antiviral medication which reduces the risk of transmitting HSV by about 50%.No safer sex method is 100% effective, but these precautions can reduce your chances of passing HSV to your partner.
In very rare cases, women with genital herpes can transmit the virus to the baby if the mother has HSV in the birth canal during delivery. Herpes in the newborn is a very serious illness. However, some 20-25% of pregnant women have genital herpes and most women with genital herpes give birth to healthy, happy babies. Women who acquire HSV for the first time towards the end of pregnancy have the highest risk of transmission of HSV to the baby.
Is there any connection between herpes and HIV?
Yes. Genital ulcers, such as those caused by herpes, may make it easier to acquire and transmit HIV.
Absolutely. Many people experience depression, anger, and sadness or want to withdraw from relationships. It’s important to talk to your health care provider about these feelings.
Stay healthy. Eat well, get enough rest, exercise, and make time to enjoy yourself. Talk to your health care provider and partners about herpes. You can also participate in research to help increase the knowledge we have about herpes.
We have a book available called Managing Herpes we highly recommend. It’s the most comprehensive and up to date book on herpes that is available. You can order the book here.
See our page with more HSV Resources for more ways to get information about herpes.