Herpes is a sexually transmitted disease. It is divided into two main types: Herpes simplex type 1 (HSV-1) and Herpes simplex type 2 (HSV-2). Both are viruses that unlike the annual flu, cannot be cured and are not self-limiting, meaning that the virus does not only exist in the body for a certain amount of time with a set expiration date. It is a lifelong disease that needs careful management and treatment. It is very contagious, and is spread through skin-to-skin contact.
Herpes simplex type 1 is known commonly as oral herpes. Oral herpes is spread by kissing a person who has an open herpes sore on, in, or near the mouth. The appearance of sores is intermittent, sometimes not appearing for years before someone knows they've been infected. When these sores appear, it is called an outbreak or a flare. Oral herpes is only contagious during a flare. Treatment with antiviral medications can shorten the length of a flare, which without treatment can last up to two weeks. With antiviral medication, the outbreaks can be reduced to as little as two days.
Herpes simplex virus type 2 is known as genital herpes. HSV-2 sores appear on or near the genital area during a flare-up. However, unlike HSV-1 genital herpes is always contagious, regardless of a flare. This means that kissing the genital area of or having sexual relations (including anal sex) with a person who has genital herpes will spread herpes to you, sores or not.
HSV-1 can be spread to the genital area if a person with an oral herpes sore kisses an area of the skin on a person that is either scratched, has a rash, cut, or any of the mucosal or membranous tissues of a person, like the eyes, genitalia, or mouth.
Fortunately, herpes simplex is indeed a virus, and viruses are limited in their survival in that they can only survive outside the body for a very short amount of time. The virus dies quickly without a host body to support its growth and function, and this renders it non infectious. You cannot get herpes by touching a surface like a toilet seat that someone with herpes has sat on because it does not come into contact with your genitals and it dies very quickly once it's shed from the skin.
To prevent infection, it is important to practice safe sex, and avoid contact with the genital area of someone with herpes simplex virus type 2, and avoid kissing people with herpes simplex virus type 2 that have open oral herpes sores. To prevent infection of self or other, it is important to wash your hands, often! Hand sanitizer does not kill viruses, and the only way to rid yourself of a virus is to wash your hands.
If you are having symptoms of a herpes infection but have not been diagnosed, or have been diagnosed and would like to seek treatment to reduce your contagiousness and manage flares, please speak to your doctor. They can help determine the best course of action for you. Though some may be apprehensive about speaking to a doctor in person, whether it's a constraint on time or need for privacy, there are online services that let you seek treatment from the comfort of your own home. At-home testing kits and appointments are discreet and can help you adhere to a treatment plan if you have any concerns about an in-person appointment with your doctor. Safe sex, hand washing, and educating yourself are your greatest assets in preventing herpes infection.
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