Herpes is a skin infection caused by the herpes simplex virus. There are two types of herpes. Herpes simplex virus -1 is usually found around the mouth and is commonly known as a cold sore. Herpes simplex virus-2 is usually found around the genital or anal areas and is commonly known as genital herpes. Both types of herpes are common, though the majority of people who have contracted the virus have no symptoms or mild symptoms that they do not recognise as herpes.
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The virus requires skin to skin contact (skin rubbing) to be spread from:
- Oral herpes (cold sore) – mouth to mouth or mouth to genitals or anus
- Genital herpes – anus/genitals to anus/genitals or anus/genitals to mouth
- Mother to baby (usually during vaginal delivery, but rare). People who are pregnant and have genital herpes should inform their midwife or doctor.
- Oral and genital herpes can also be transmitted to eyes through touching
Herpes is most contagious when symptoms are felt on the skin. In the absence of symptoms however, the virus can also be shed from the skin.
Signs and Symptoms
The first symptoms of herpes may occur within days, weeks or years of exposure or may not occur at all. For many people the first episode of symptoms is the most painful, and reoccurrences are usually less in intensity. Some people may not get another occurrence.
- Genital discharge
- Fevers, swollen glands, headaches, muscle aches and tiredness may also be present
- On the skin surface, people may experience:
- An itching, tingling or burning or swelling feeling
- Blisters or bumps filled with clear fluid that eventually breaks open
- Skin sores that are painful to touch
People who have sores and suspect they may have herpes should visit a doctor as soon as possible. A swab can be taken as a test for herpes and a doctor can prescribe antiviral medications. The earlier a person is tested and starts treatment the more benefit they will gain in confirming the presence of the virus and responding to treatment. There are many types of antiviral medications that are prescribed by a doctor to control symptoms and reduce (not eliminate) transmission. There are also products that can be purchased from the chemist to manage herpes such as topical ointments which reduce pain caused by blisters and sores. Having a salt bath (1/2 cup salt in a warm bath) for 20 minutes will also soothe the skin area.
Maintaining a healthy diet, exercise, rest and relaxation can help improve the immune system and manage herpes. The number of reoccurrences will vary from person to person and usually become less frequent over time.
Condoms and dams do provide some protection in preventing herpes transmission during sex, but do not completely (because the condom only protects the skin inside shaft of the penis and the dam covering the mouth, vagina or anus). Direct skin contact with exposed skin areas (testicles, vulva, buttocks, etc.) may transmit the virus at any time during sex. There is always an occupational risk of herpes for sex workers, or any sexually active person. This cannot be avoided no matter how careful you may be.
If a client has signs of genital herpes, offer them a different service like hand relief, using latex gloves to avoid skin contact with the affected area. If cold sores are present avoid kissing and do not allow the mouth to touch the vagina or anus.
For added protection, latex gloves can be worn to avoid direct skin contact with sores when checking a client. Remember to pull the foreskin back on the penis to check the skin underneath.
Although unlikely, it is possible to transfer herpes between sites such as your anus, vagina and throat via fingers or a condom. For this reason, if you are performing oral, vaginal and anal sex, it is important to get all the respective swabs and you may also want to change condoms when changing between oral, anal and vaginal sex.
Note: it is recommended that you always change condoms when going from anal to vaginal or oral sex.