One in eight Australians has genital herpes, though many people have no idea they’re carrying the virus.
The rate in gay men who have more than one sexual partner is bound to be higher, as the more partners someone has the greater their risk of coming into contact with it.
It’s a sobering thought, and one that health experts are trying to make well known this National Herpes Day on Friday 13 October.
Genital herpes is usually transmitted during anal or vaginal intercourse and oral sex. However, there doesn’t need to be penetration -“ skin to skin contact can be enough.
Everyone experiences genital herpes differently and not all people have symptoms, which can include blisters, sores, redness, burning, itching or cracks in the skin around the genital area.
Only around 20 percent of people with genital herpes have recognised symptoms, 60 percent have unrecognised symptoms and 20 percent have no symptoms at all. In some cases it can take years before any symptoms appear.
Symptoms tend to come and go. The virus is most likely to be transmitted when there is an outbreak of symptoms, but it can still be passed on when there is not.
Dr Catriona Ooi, a member of the GP working party for the Australian Herpes Management Forum, said the virus lies dormant in the nervous system and when it’s reactivated outbreaks can occur.
What triggers the outbreaks is fairly individual. Some people find when they get stressed they get more outbreaks, while with some women it’s associated with their period, Ooi explained.
While there is currently no cure for herpes, it doesn’t have to mean an end to your sex life.
The thing we see most with people with herpes is that when they come to see a GP they’re often very upset because there’s a huge stigma associated with it. But there are a lot of people with herpes, she said.
Herpes is a common infection and it doesn’t need to have a huge impact on your lifestyle or your relationships or your sex life if it is managed appropriately.
Don’t be afraid to seek medical help.
GPs test for genital herpes by swabbing sores or blisters, or via a blood test.
Medication can help clear up outbreaks quickly, prevent outbreaks and reduce the chance of passing the virus on. Treatment may involve taking medication when outbreaks occur or on a regular basis to decrease outbreaks, Ooi said.
Other ways to reduce the risk of passing genital herpes to a partner include using a condom during intercourse and not having sex when symptoms are present.
Having the virus can increase the risk of contracting HIV, because during outbreaks there may be broken skin present. And people who are HIV-positive and have herpes are more infectious because there may be broken skin, according to Ooi.
She said herpes can also increase the risk of HIV progression.
Genital herpes is usually caused by herpes simplex virus 2, while the kind of herpes commonly found around the mouth is herpes simplex virus 1, which causes cold sores. However, a growing number of people in Australia are being infected genitally with HSV-1 via oral sex.
Ooi said there had been an increase in oral sex in recent years as people saw it as a safer form of sex than intercourse.
For more information see the Australian Herpes Management Forum’s website.