Decoding herpes: Telltale sign that you've been infected

This National Herpes Awareness Day, Gentside has partnered up with Dr. Konstantin Kousoulas to talk in depth about the STD that is quietly taking the world by storm.

Contracting a sexually transmitted disease like herpes can feel earth-shattering. For most, it's the beginning of awkward conversations, unforgettable shame, failed relationships, and never-ending secrecy. But what's even more unfortunate is that misinformation and lack of awareness has continued to damage and destroy the lives of those infected with the lifelong viruses. More than 4.19 billion people have contracted herpes, according to a study done by the World Health Organisation in 2016.

In reality, navigating well-being, health, sex, society, and relationships should not be as gruelling of a task. In fact, the more you learn about the virus, the more you realize that it's not as disastrous as it's made out to be.

Herpes: A virus that’s happy when we’re healthy

According to Dr. Konstantin Kousoulas, a professor of virology and biotechnology at Louisiana State University, these little viruses don't actually intend on causing any trouble.

Firstly, you should know that there are two kinds of herpes viruses—herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) and herpes simplex virus type (HSV-2). The first is a virus that infects the face, lips, and eyes, while the second affects your genitals.

Both viruses prefer to happily rest in your nerves and do not like to be disturbed. This is why many people, who get an initial infection when they're very young or when they're healthy, don't notice they have caught the virus in the first place.

On the flip side, herpes can cause real havoc when there is an ‘imbalance in the immune system’ and this usually happens as people get older. When it’s disturbed, either because of stress, poor nutrition, or an immunocompromised body, it will activate itself in an attempt to spread to another person. These reactivation episodes can happen multiple times a year, or only once in a lifetime. Dr. Konstantin Kousoulas adds:

Women are more likely to experience a herpes reactivation during their menstrual cycle. Also immunocompromised individuals may have many reactions—more than 6 per year.

How do you know if you’re having a reactivation episode?

Whether you’ve been infected with HSV-1 or HSV-2, the first telltale sign that the virus is trying to make a run for it is when you have a tingling or itching sensation in the area of infection. Dr. Kousoulas says:

The typical sensation is a tingling sensation and the surface where you’re getting it. Itching on your lip, or your mouth cavity, or your genitals. And that’s really the prelude that the virus is there.

Other symptoms that you may experience include:

  • Tenderness in spot of infection
  • Swollen and tender glands in the pelvic area, throat, or under the arms
  • Mild fever
  • Headache
  • Fatigue
  • Severe pain felt along a nerve (predominant in women)

Getting cold sores, a symptom that is associated with herpes infection, is actually a sign that most of the virus has gone away. Dr. Kousoulas clarified that the lesions are the aftermath of the immune system fighting off the virus. He says:

When you see the cold sore and the puss, most likely a lot of the virus is gone. What you see is really the aftermath of the immune system trying to attack the virus.

Precautionary measures

When you first begin feeling that ‘tingling’ sensation, that is when the virus is highly infectious. Hence, Dr. Kousoulas suggests taking extra precautions when coming into contact during this time. He says:

At the time you see a tingling sensation and if you have experienced that before, that would be the time you have to be extra careful in having safe contact. Avoid kissing people, not rubbing your eyes, not being involved in oral sex or other sexual interactions without protection.
Typically that should go away in two to three weeks normally, no more than that, could be less.

As per the expert’s advice, it is only during a reactivation episode that herpes-infected individuals should abstain from any sexual contact. In addition, taking medication, like acyclovir, will help to reduce the loads of the virus as well.

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