Herpes is one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), but there’s a certain stigma that surrounds this particular STD – and that stigma keeps a lot of people from getting tested.
According to the CDC, genital herpes affects about one in six people in the United States between the ages of 14 and 49. But experts estimate that the overall statistics for genital herpes is much higher, as the one-in-six figure only accounts for herpes caused by the HSV-2 infection.
Many people also contract genital herpes through oral sex, which is commonly caused by the HSV-1 infection (or the herpes that causes cold sores).
When you take HSV-1 and HSV-2 into account, it’s estimated that about 10% of men and 25% of women have genital herpes. And most of them don’t even know that they’re infected.
Understanding what this STD is, how it spreads and your testing options can help keep you and your partners safe.
What is Herpes?
Genital herpes is an STD that’s caused by: herpes simplex type 1 (HSV-1) and herpes simplex type 2 (HSV-2).
How is Herpes Spread?
Herpes can be spread through oral, vaginal, or anal sex with someone who is already infected with the disease.
The herpes virus causes the development of sores, and the fluids in these sores is what carries the virus. Contact with these fluids can lead to infection, but you can also contract herpes from sexual contact with a partner with no visible sores. The virus can be released through the skin and spread the infection.
Herpes can be very difficult to diagnose simply because most people do not experience any symptoms. If they do experience symptoms, they are typically mild, and can easily be confused with other illnesses.
Symptoms of genital herpes can include:
- Sores or blisters on or near the mouth (oral herpes), rectum, or genitals
- Swollen lymph nodes
The blisters that develop eventually break open, leaving behind painful and raw sores. The fluid in these sores and blisters carries the disease. Eventually, the blisters scab and heal over.
Repeat outbreaks are common during the first year of the infection, but become less severe over time.
Some people will carry the herpes virus in their bodies for the rest of their lives, but the number of outbreaks typically decreases over the years.
What Happens if Herpes Isn’t Treated?
The National Institutes of Health says genital herpes is generally nothing to be concerned about.
In fact, some people never even have an outbreak. The virus can remain dormant in your body for years and never trigger an outbreak.
With that said, herpes can increase your chances of contracting HIV, and cause pregnancy complications.
An outbreak during the third trimester of pregnancy and delivery can be fatal for the baby, although this is incredibly rare – and preventable.
Is Herpes Curable?
No, herpes is not curable, but there are treatment options that can effectively manage the condition.
How Does Herpes Testing Work?
If you’re sexually active or suspect you may have herpes, the first step is to get tested. There are several testing methods available to determine if you’re infected.
Testing can be performed as early as three weeks after exposure. However, doctors recommend waiting until 4-6 weeks after exposure to get tested, as this gives antibodies enough time to fully develop. Follow-up tests are also performed after three months.
Common testing methods for HSV-1 and HSV-2 include:
An IgG is a blood test, and is sometimes referred to as a Western Blot. This method of testing uses an immunoblot format for the differentiation of HSV-1 and HSV-2 IgG antibodies.
These antibodies are the most abundant in the body, and are found in all bodily fluids. Their primary purpose is to protect against viral and bacterial infections.
The IgG test is the most accurate form of herpes testing, and boast a 99% accuracy rating.
DFA (Direct Fluorescent Antibody)
A DFA test looks directly at infected cells through microscopic examination. The test requires lesion/ulcer swabs, upper respiratory tract swabs, or impression smears of tissue.
This method of testing distinguishes between HSV-1 and HSV-2, and is not as sensitive as a cell culture test.
Culture and Typing, or ELVIS
ELVIS stands for enzyme-linked virus-inducible system. Cultures found positive through this method are confirmed using immunofluorescent staining.
This type of test can be performed on a number of samples, including: cerebrospinal fluid, vesicular fluid, urine, ulcerated lesions, throat swabs, eye exudates, vaginal swabs, or biopsy material.
Culture without Typing
While similar to the previous type of test, this method does not distinguish between the HSV-1 and HSV-2 strains.
Culture without typing tests can be performed on the same specimens as listed in the previous testing type.
ELISA IgM and Type-Specific IgG
A blood test that uses Enzyme-linked Immunosorbent Assay, or ELISA, to analyze samples. The blood sample is added to a petri dish that contains antigens related to either HSV-1 or HSV-2. If the blood contains antibodies to either type of antigen, they will bind together.
An enzyme is added to the dish to see how the blood reacts, and confirm whether the antibodies are present.
This method is most effective when testing newborns. Additional testing is often required because IgM testing is not highly accurate.
CLIA (Chemiluminescent immunoassay)
CLIA is another type of blood test used to diagnose herpes, and it looks for antibodies that are specific to HSV-1 and HSV-2.
The assays used in this test are based on purified recombinant glycoprotein G-2 or G-1.
DNA PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction)
A DNA PCR test can detect herpes and determine which strain is present. The test may be performed on plasma, vitreous fluid, lesion swab, cerebrospinal fluid, serum, or whole blood.
How to Get Tested
Getting tested for herpes is the only way to know for sure if you have this STD. The sooner you’re diagnosed, the sooner you can start treatment.
Testing can be performed by your physician. You can also find a local clinic that offers free or low-cost STD testing.
But if you care about privacy and don’t want other people (other people you may know) to know that you’re getting tested, the at-home option may be the best option.
An at home herpes test is quick, easy, and convenient.
All you have to do is order the tests (you’ll need one for HSV-1 and HSV-2), and visit one of thousands of test centers. While at the facility, a small sample of your blood will be taken for testing.
With thousands of testing locations, you’re sure to find one close to home.
When you buy an at-home test, you remain anonymous. No one will ever know you got tested unless you tell them. You will be assigned a unique identification code, and that code will be used when visiting the facility and filling out paperwork. That code also lets you view your results and track the test.
Rather than waiting a week – sometimes two – for the results, you’ll wait just one to two days. The results are sent to an email address, so you never have to worry about nosy roommates or family members seeing the results before you do.
The results will be listed as either positive or negative for each type of herpes.
And if the result is positive for genital herpes, you can speak to a doctor for free. During your free consultation, you can ask questions and may even have a prescription sent to a nearby pharmacy.
If you’re sexually active with more than one partner or think you might have herpes, it’s important to get tested as soon as possible. If you fail to get tested and are infected, you may unknowingly infect your partners and put yourself at greater risk for contracting HIV.