Cullins explains that even if you’ve never had an outbreak, if you’ve been exposed to herpes, it lies dormant in your body. A blood test could reveal antibodies for HSV-1 and/or HSV-2, which means that you have been exposed to the infection in your past, you have been infected, and you have developed antibodies because your body has or is fighting the infection.
Herpes type 2 (HSV-2) can cause genital herpes. This is one of the most common sexually transmitted infections (STIs) in the US. It causes sores or painful blisters on the penis, vagina, scrotum, anus and buttocks. Along with blisters, people with HSV-2 may experience tingling, itching or pain. Like HSV-1, HSV-2 infections are highly contagious. They can be spread easily through skin-to-skin contact. Sexual intercourse is the main route of transmission.
In order to diagnose herpes, a health care provider can swab an area of visibly active herpes infection or, if symptoms aren’t active, a blood test can be given that measures the number of herpes antibodies present in the body. The antibodies don’t indicate herpes itself, but rather show the immune system’s response to the presence of the virus in the body. It’s important to note that sometimes a swab can give false negative results since herpes lesions need to be large enough to yield enough detectable virus and if the outbreak is already healing it also may not be detected in a swab. (6)
According to Cullins, there are no standardized guidelines from the CDC for suppressive therapy through medication, but it is an option that people with HSV should talk to their healthcare providers about. “If a person knows they have had herpes in the past that has affected their genitals, they can take suppressive therapy — for example, 500 mg of valacyclovir daily.” While it won’t prevent outbreaks, it will prevent asymptomatic virus shedding. Preventing exposure to the virus through both medication and a physical barrier can be very effective.
Consequently, you may already have the virus. A doctor can determine this with a blood test for Herpes 2 (Ig), a type-specific immunoglobulin. If you are already infected, you won’t be at risk for a new infection — you and your boyfriend already share the virus. But knowing your herpes status will tell you whether you are capable of infecting a future partner.
At the other end of the spectrum, there is a possibility of a herpetic flare up taking a sinister turn and leading to herpetic encephalitis. It is estimated to affect at least 1 in 500,000 individuals per year. The mechanism of this is not fully understood, but it is believed that the infection occurs through direct transmission of the virus via nerves from other parts of the body to the brain. In such cases, a person may complain of fever, headache, and lethargy, followed by confusion or delirium. In some cases, some people even develop seizures. This requires immediate medical attention and treatment.
Jamie*, 29, is HSV-positive and contracted herpes from her husband. But, she explains, “He only had one outbreak when he was young and that was it. So he didn't realize what it was.” Jamie was infected three years into their relationship simply because he had outbreaks that infrequently. She says, “I was worried he had cheated on me, but then found similar stories online, and our outbreak patterns underscore that what happened is very possible.”
“Herpes is caused by sexual intimacy and contact with a person who is actively shedding the herpes virus,” says Cullins. If you have HSV-1, that shedding could happen through the mouth or a cold sore, which means that the virus can be transmitted through kissing, or just sharing a drink. If you have herpes that affects the genitals, it can be transmitted from sharing sex toys, grinding, or even mutual masturbation — any activity where the virus can be transmitted from one person to another through skin-to-skin or mucosal contact.
A scary finding is that more cases of genital herpes than ever before are now being caused by HSV-1 (the type most people assume only causes mouth sores), and about 85 percent of people with genital herpes don’t even know it. (7) Studies show that about 50 percent of the new genital herpes infections in young adults are due to HSV-1 and about 40 percent in older adults. The fact that most people don’t ever find out they’re infected is one of the reasons that transmission rates are steadily climbing.