Herpes is caused by the Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV). There are 2 types of HSV:
Type 1, commonly called cold sores, occurs around the mouth, lips and nose; and
Type 2, or genital herpes, appears on the genitals or around the anus.
Both types cause irritating blisters that develop into painful ulcers. Stress is a major factor in an outbreak of herpes blisters. Sunburn can also trigger this.
After initial infection, the virus may remain latent within the tissue and reactivate in times of stress or immune deficiency. HSV is highly infectious and is transmitted sexually and by close person-to-person contact and sexual intimacy – such as kissing, and oral, anal and vaginal sex – or from mother to baby during childbirth.
Condoms help prevent transmission of herpes during anal or vaginal sex, although they will not prevent other transmission risks such as kissing, oral sex and skin-to-skin contact.
Herpes Type 1 is extremely common in Australia, and 10% of adults have Type 2.
There is no cure for HSV but symptoms can be controlled with herpes antiviral medications.
While herpes is not life-threatening, and not all people who have it suffer from blister outbreaks, those who do experience outbreaks find that topical medication ointment eases the pain and can help speed recovery when blisters appear.
There is a high risk of herpes spreading between sexual partners before, during, and for the week following a blister episode. Even when a person has no symptoms, herpes can be directly spread to their partner, if the infected person is currently “shedding” the virus (replicating) at the time of sexual intercourse or oral sex.
Genital herpes is a risk factor for getting or passing on HIV, due to blistering sores and ulcers where there may be blood-to-blood contact.