Reviewed By: Dr. Kurt Kloss, MD
Last Reviewed Date: Oct 09, 2018
Last Modified Date: Oct 09, 2018
Published Date: Aug 23, 2017
Do I Have Herpes? What’s Next?
Whether you're experiencing symptoms that make you suspect you've contracted genital herpes or have been told that a partner has been diagnosed with the disease, asking the question “ I think I have herpes – what do I do now?” is a very common and understandable response. Here we'll discuss the symptoms of herpes and what the next steps are if you think you may be infected with this very common sexually transmitted disease – as well as what you can expect if you are diagnosed with herpes in terms of treatment and living with the disease.
Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted disease that may be caused by one of two viruses, herpes simplex type 1 or herpes simplex type 2. Infection occurs via sexual activity with an infected partner, including vaginal, anal or oral sex – and an infected partner with no obvious symptoms can transmit the disease to others. According to the CDC, about one of every six people between the ages of 14 and 49 is affected by the disease, with most unaware that they are herpes carriers.
How Do You Know If You Have Herpes?
In many cases, symptoms can be an indication that you've contracted herpes. In patients who experience herpes symptoms, the first outbreak generally occurs within 1 to 2 weeks of a person's exposure to the virus. Among the most recognizable symptoms of herpes are sores on the skin or mucus membranes – typically on or near the genitals – that first appear as small red bumps, then develop into blisters that pop and become open sores before fading away – a process that generally takes place over a period of 2 to 3 weeks. Other common effects include flu-like symptoms, such as fever, swollen glands, headache and muscle aches. However, the absence of symptoms does not necessarily mean you haven't been infected. A large proportion of people who have herpes do not present symptoms at all, or present very mild ones that are often mistaken for other skin conditions.
So how can you tell if you have herpes? Even if you have suspicious symptoms, herpes testing is the only way to know for sure, since many other skin conditions can cause herpes-like sores. If you have sores, your doctor can take a swab of fluid from those sores, which will be cultured in a lab to determine whether the herpes virus is present. If so, further testing can be done on that sample to determine whether you've been infected with herpes simplex type one or herpes simplex type 2. If you suspect you've been exposed but haven't developed any symptoms, or perhaps had sores that have already healed, blood testing can be done to detect herpes infection. These tests look for antibodies to the herpes virus, and if they are present, can determine whether you’re infected with herpes type 1 or herpes type 2.
What Do You Do When You Have Herpes?
Firstly, seek treatment. Antiviral medications can help supress outbreaks and reduce your risk of infecting others with herpes. Using condoms when you have sex can reduce – but not eliminate – transmission risk as well. It is important to abstain from sex during outbreaks, and to be aware that is possible to transmit herpes even when you have no symptoms. For that reason, it is important to inform partners that you have herpes and explain the risks.
Your doctor may also recommend dietary changes as part of your herpes treatment, since keeping your immune system strong can minimize outbreaks. Additionally, you may be asked to reduce your intake of certain foods to help prevent flare-ups, such as sugary foods and foods that are high in arginine – an amino acid that can help viruses grow and multiply. Foods high in arginine include nuts and seeds, coconut, chocolate, orange juice, wheat products, lentils, oats, gelatin and protein supplements. Balancing arginine intake with increased amounts of lysine – another amino acid that inhibits viral activity – can also help. Foods rich in lysine include vegetables, chicken, fish, beans and eggs. Your doctor may also suggest a lysine supplement to aid in suppressing the herpes virus.
Do You Have Herpes Forever?
Once you've been infected with genital herpes, the virus will remain in your body forever. However, the good news is that herpes does not cause any serious health issues and, in most cases, it will remain dormant much of the time. The first outbreak is typically the worst, and outbreaks generally become less frequent and severe over time. Last, but not least, herpes is not the end of the world. While getting diagnosed with the disease can certainly be traumatic, most people who have herpes go on to live full, happy lives – complete with long-term relationships and, for many, children.
Some of the media in this article come from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Public Health Image Library (PHIL), with identification number #14427, 12590 and 1971.