Why Herpes Isn't as Bad as You May Think (and a Lot More Common)

Herpes treatment can reduce outbreaks—and also help prevent transmission.
Genital herpes—a disease that can manifest in painful, itchy sores on the genitals—is caused by a virus and is one of the sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) that frightens people most. But in most cases, having herpes just means having an unpleasant skin condition—a surprisingly common one: About one in five American adults has the virus that typically causes genital herpes, though most of them don't realize it.

It's true that herpes is incurable, however, and that there's no foolproof way to prevent the possibility that you'll spread it to your partners.

The pain of herpes can be more emotional than physical
"I don't know why genital herpes has this pariah, fearful component to it," says H. Hunter Handsfield, MD, a clinical professor of medicine at the University of Washington in Seattle and a nationally recognized STD expert. "Herpes is, in fact, the same disease as our cold sores and fever blisters around the mouth, but we don't react emotionally the same way."

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He points out that "people are more afraid of herpes than they are of chlamydia, and in the long run chlamydia is more likely to cause serious damage to their reproductive and general health than herpes ever is."

Another sneaky STD
Like chlamydia, herpes usually doesn't announce itself. Experts advise looking at a new partner's genitals to make sure there are no signs of infection. But "most herpes transmission comes from people who are not having symptomatic outbreaks," says Jeanne Marrazzo, MD, an STD specialist at the University of Washington medical school.

The good news? "Most people who have the virus won't have recurrent outbreaks. In fact, most people won't have outbreaks at all. For some people, though, it's a really awful, symptomatic, recurrent thing," Dr. Marrazzo says.

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Lead writer: Louise Sloan
Last Updated: May 14, 2008

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