(1) What is it and how is it transmitted?
Herpes is an infection caused by the Herpes simplex virus (HSV), type 1 or 2. Typically, HSV-1, which is known to cause “cold sores,” is found on or around the mouth but can also be found on the genitals, and HSV-2, on the genitals, though it can also be found on or around the mouth. The virus is transmitted through skin-to-skin contact with an infected area during sexual activity, which includes oral, anal, and vaginal sex, nonpenetrative genital contact, sharing sex toys, and kissing. There is also a possibility of transmission during childbirth, but precautions can be taken with the help of a healthcare professional. The risk of transmission is greatest when there are lesions, but the risk is also present during periods of asymptomatic shedding.
(2) Possible symptoms
There are often either no symptoms or only minor symptoms that may go unnoticed. A person can therefore be infected without knowing it.
If there are symptoms, a person who has contracted herpes will experience a first outbreak called primary infection, which occurs six days after infection, on average. The main symptoms are one or several small blisters on the mouth or genitals that turn into painful ulcers, and flu-like symptoms (fever, headache, fatigue, body aches). Without medication, the primary infection lasts an average of one to three weeks. This episode is considered to be the longest and most intense.
The primary infection is followed by subsequent recurring episodes. The duration and intensity of symptoms vary greatly from person to person, but they tend to decrease over time. A person with herpes may also experience prodromes: small signs or early symptoms that occur 24 to 48 hours before lesions appear.
There may be episodes of asymptomatic shedding, which are contagious. This means that the virus is “strong” enough to reach the surface of the skin and be transmitted, but not enough to cause symptoms. These asymptomatic periods can occur between recurrent episodes without the person knowing.
(3) Complications when undiagnosed and untreated
Other than recurrent episodes, herpes-related complications are rare but can be serious, such as encephalitis or meningitis. Without treatment to help reduce symptoms, recurring episodes may be longer, more painful, and more frequent.
Currently, there are no standardized screening methods for herpes for asymptomatic individuals.
If you have symptoms such as painful genital lesions, you should make an appointment with a healthcare professional who can take a sample and make a diagnosis.
You can go to a clinic specializing in sexual health like L’Actuel for a medical consultation.
There is no cure for herpes. People who are infected with herpes carry the virus for life. However, there are treatments in the form of oral tablets to reduce symptom duration and intensity as well as the risk of transmission. Some people who experience episodes several times a year can also use treatment in suppressive mode to prevent these episodes.