5 Common Myths About Herpes
The herpes virus affects the majority of us, so join us as we clear up some of the most common herpes myths and misconceptions.
Updated: Tuesday 11 January 2022
Many of us aren’t as in-the-know about herpes as perhaps we ought to be, especially considering how common the two strains are. The level of misinformation on the internet is astonishing and it’s easy to be misled, for example, 34% of Brits believe that herpes isn’t contagious (spoilers: it is!). In this article, we’ll dispel the common misunderstandings about the viruses, covering what they look like, how they’re transferred and how to treat them.
Herpes is the abbreviated name for the herpes simplex virus, a particular viral infection that appears in two common variants: HSV-1 and HSV-2. You may also know the HSV-1 virus as “oral herpes” and HSV-2 as “genital herpes”, although as explained in myth number five, this isn’t a hard and fast rule. The two strains are both highly contagious, and can cause symptoms such as sores on the lips and headaches.
Myth 1 - Herpes is uncommon
If you receive a diagnosis of herpes, you might feel upset, ashamed of your “promiscuity” and annoyed to be the one that got unlucky. But if we take a look at the statistics, it becomes clear that there are not many reasons to be surprised or embarrassed.
More than two-thirds of adults in the UK have HSV-1 (oral herpes) and approximately one in ten worldwide have HSV-2 (genital herpes). Considering how contagious the virus is, especially during an outbreak, it’s unlikely that your diagnosis in any way reflects your sex life or is anything to be ashamed about. Most of the population have HSV-1, and yet the majority have no idea they harbour the virus. This is because most individuals with the condition are asymptomatic or have such mild symptoms that it either goes unnoticed or is mistaken for another skin condition.
So if you think you may have herpes, you’re far from alone. There is sometimes a social stigma that prevents open conversation about these issues that are considered sensitive, but chances are many of your friends and family also have the virus, either knowingly or unknowingly, and that’s completely normal.
Myth 2 - Herpes is deadly
According to one online survey, two in five respondents thought that herpes was a deadly illness. For the most part, herpes is a condition that goes completely unnoticed, and you may never know you have it unless you specifically go for a check-up. Some people may experience symptoms, the most common are cold sores on the lips and mouth which are caused by HSV-1. Symptoms that form a scab, or blisters on the penis, scrotum, vagina, and around the genital and anus regions are commonly caused by HSV-2. The first flare-up is usually the worst, with many adults never experiencing another outbreak, but if they do they are usually less severe. In very rare cases, some complications can occur, but these tend to only occur in those with an already weakened immune system. Some more serious complications might include dehydration, meningitis or even encephalitis, but this is incredibly unlikely.
Appropriately treating herpes outbreaks with antiviral medication as soon as they occur is proven to clear and reduce the likelihood of future flare-ups, although sometimes the body can clear herpes on its own.
Myth 3 - You can only spread or catch herpes if you have active symptoms
Many people think that a herpes outbreak acts as a visual indicator of whether you are contagious or not, and that you can’t transfer the virus unless you have experienced or are currently experiencing symptoms. Whilst that certainly would be convenient, it’s unfortunately not the case. It is still possible to transfer the virus when no symptoms are present, after all, many people never experience any symptoms. However, when symptoms like sores or unusual vaginal discharge do occur, you are much more contagious and likely to spread the virus upon close contact, so this is actually a good indicator to hold back from too much physical contact with others who don’t already have herpes during the period. To increase your chances of being protected, wearing a condom during sex will reduce the spread of HSV-2, but this isn’t 100% effective as sores can appear in areas like the buttocks or thighs, so it’s important to be aware of the risks.
Myth 4 - HSV-1 only affects the mouth, and HSV-2 only affects the genitals
For the most part, HSV-1 outbreaks appear in the form of cold sores on the lips and face that blister over in a few days and produce scabs. But whilst this is a pretty good rule of thumb, it’s possible for the symptoms to appear on other areas of your skin that come into contact with the blisters. It’s common for people who touch their cold sores a lot during an outbreak to develop herpes symptoms on their fingers, which can then be transferred via touching with the fingers. Therefore it’s particularly important to frequently wash your hands during an outbreak, especially as mouth-touching is so often an unconscious act.
However, a recent trend of the HSV-1 virus is causing anogenital sores. This means someone with HSV-1 active in the mouth can actually give their partner the virus in their genitals if the affected person performs oral sex. Similarly, if someone has contracted HSV-1 in their genitals, they can pass on the virus by receiving oral sex from another partner.
Similarly, HSV-2 tends to be true to it’s “genital herpes” nickname and favour the mucosal membranes of the genital area, but this isn’t always the case. The HSV-2 virus can cause symptoms on the anus, the buttocks, and the thighs.
Myth 5 - Herpes only spreads through sexual contact
In terms of HSV-1, it’s actually more common for people to spread the virus via nonsexual contact. The oral herpes virus is carried in bodily fluid, usually saliva, and is most commonly transmitted through kissing. Accordingly to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, most people who have HSV-1 caught it during childhood from nonsexual contact, like receiving a kiss from a family member. Whilst the virus does typically enter the body successfully through mucosal membranes like the mouth, a break in the skin like a cut or scratch can be enough of an entry point for the virus to spread, one of the reasons it’s so widespread.
For HSV-2, this is almost always transferred via sexual contact. Whilst this is usually vaginal or anal sex, close contact of the genitals or any sharing of sexual fluids can result in the transfer of the virus. As mentioned above, HSV-2 can possibly be transferred by receiving oral sex, or by giving oral sex if the affected person has HSV-2 in the mouth.
If untreated, symptoms of herpes can last up to 20 days, but using the appropriate treatment as soon as symptoms appear can speed this recovery process up to just 5 days. Not only does this suppress your immediate symptoms, but it will help to reduce the chances or severity of a future outbreak.
Our clinically-proven treatments for oral herpes (cold sores) include the following:
For genital herpes, the following treatments are effective at clearing outbreaks:
Our health blog has other useful information regarding genital herpes, such as how to tell your partner about herpes and the daily challenges of living with herpes, so be sure to give these a read!
Authored by Toby Watson
Pharmica Medical Writer
Toby (BSc) is an experienced medical writer, producing educational articles on many areas of health including sexual health, fitness, nutrition and mental health.
He particularly enjoys debunking misconceptions around heath conditions and their treatments, researching each topic in detail and writing easily-accessible content.