Herpes is a virus, actually a pair of viruses. One was normally found above the waist, the other below the waist. But in recent years, there have been many cases of what used to be oral herpes (cold sores) found living in the genitals, and genital herpes being found above the waist. In addition, these viruses are mutating, and are becoming resistant to the drugs used to treat them. About 1 in every 4 people in the United States have herpes, even if you don't ever see symptoms.
Herpes can be passed during sex, kissing, or by simple skin contact. The blister-like cold sores are an indication that the nerves are stimulated, but even without the sores, you can spread herpes. The cases are rising- about 30% more each year.
What are the symptoms?
Most people have very mild, or no symptoms. Those that do show symptoms may have blister-like sores on the mouth, anus, or genitals, and burning and itching around the genitals. For the first few outbreaks, you may have flu-like symptoms, as well- a fever, feeling sore, and just generally not well.
Diagnosis and treatments
Many times, simply looking at the sores can be a diagnosis, even if it has been a few days since the blister 'broke'. The fluid from these sores can be collected and tested to confirm the disease. If you have no active sores, an exam can be done to collect samples from the cervix or inside the tip of the penis. A blood test may show the antibodies, but this is the most difficult way to get an accurate diagnosis.
There is, right now, no cure for herpes. There are treatments that shorten the duration of outbreaks, causing it to be less obvious. But the virus has no current treatment that is effective in removing it or weakening it.
Stress is a common trigger for outbreaks- after a while, you should only experience about 4 a year, on average. Even normal things, like a woman's period or energetic sex, can trigger an outbreak.
What if I don't get treated?
The sores themselves are a major reason to seek treatment. A course of medication, even up to a daily dose, may minimize the outbreaks, and make it less risky for you and your partner to have sex. Touching the fluid from the sores brings a risk of transferring the virus to another person, or even to a different body part.
The risk of a problem from herpes becomes greater, since even without the sores you can still pass it on. A kiss on the cheek from a relative can work its way into your mouth, or into a cut, and infect you for life.
Being careful and honest with yourself, your chosen professional, and others is the best way to avoid passing herpes on to another person- the non-sexual ways of infecting others are too many to risk their health and yours.