Herpes can be embarrassing, but it's also very common. In fact, most people who have herpes don't even know it, though it can cause mild to severe symptoms.
Herpes outbreaks typically occur two or three times a year but can be as frequent as once a week, but this varies from a case-by-case basis. Herpes affects each person differently, so a person's frequency of outbreaks may also vary over time. The following article should give you all the information you need about herpes outbreaks, and how often they occur.
What is Herpes?
Herpes is caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV) that can cause infections in various parts of the body. There are two types of herpes viruses: herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) and herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2). HSV-1 is usually associated with infections of the mouth, such as cold sores or fever blisters, whereas HSV-2 is usually associated with genital herpes infections. However, either type of herpes virus can infect any part of the body.
With around five hundred thousand new genital infections every year and a nationwide infection share of 11.9% among people aged 14 to 49 for HSV-2 alone, herpes is one of the most common sexually transmitted infections (STIs) in the United States.
Most people with herpes are asymptomatic, meaning they don't experience any symptoms. When symptoms do occur, they can include itching, tingling, burning, and pain. However, these symptoms can vary from person to person, and some people don't experience any symptoms at all.
In no way does that mean that herpes should be taken lightly though, as there are a number of serious complications that can arise as a result of herpes infection. For one, the genital ulcers that herpes causes increase the chances of sexually transmitted HIV infections – by a multiple of two to four, according to CDC estimates.
Another potential complication is neonatal herpes, where mothers infected with herpes pass the infection on to their children during pregnancy, childbirth, or even some time after. It is worth noting that the risk of contracting neonatal infection increases if the mother contracted herpes close to delivery – this is in line with the fact that herpes outbreaks tend to occur more frequently within the first year of infection, and symptoms tend to be worse during the first few years of infection as well.
Safe sex by way of condoms is the best way to avoid contracting herpes, but some risk remains nonetheless, and the only way to definitively avoid genital herpes is to either abstain from sex or to engage in the act with a consistent, exclusive partner who has been tested for STDs and is confirmed to be uninfected.
If you think you may have herpes, it's important to get tested by a healthcare professional. Herpes can be treated with medication, but it's important to get treatment early to avoid any long-term complications.
HSV-1 is one of the two types of herpes. It is most commonly spread through contact with saliva, such as kissing, sharing drinks, or sharing lip balm. It can also be spread through skin-to-skin contact.
Many people with HSV-1 have either mild symptoms or – in some cases – none at all. When the virus does express itself, it can often cause sores on the mouth, lips, nose, cheeks, or genitals (though this is more common with the other herpes virus type, HSV-2). During outbreaks, the herpes virus will cause a rash on the infected area, which may cause you to experience a tingling sensation, itching, burning, pain, or swelling both before and after the sores appear. These sores typically heal within two to four weeks.
Though there is no cure for HSV-1, if the symptoms are particularly painful, there are certain treatments that can help reduce symptoms. You can take certain antiviral oral medications, such as acyclovir, famciclovir and valacyclovir. It may also help to apply antiviral topical ointments, such as penciclovir. If your symptoms are mild, you can also make use of many over-the-counter topical anesthetics or anti-inflammatory agents to alleviate symptoms.
While HSV-1 is typically (though not always) associated with oral herpes, HSV-2 is the virus responsible for genital herpes. Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) that can cause painful sores on the genitals and surrounding areas. It is one of the most common STIs in the United States.
HSV-2 is a sexually transmitted virus that is most commonly spread through sexual contact. It can also be spread from an infected mother to her baby during childbirth. Symptoms can include painful sores on the genitals, vaginal discharge, itching or burning in the genital area, and pain during urination. As with HSV-1, there is no cure, but there are treatments available – specifically, antiviral medications, pain relief medications, skin ointments, and cold compresses can all help ease the symptoms of HSV-2.
How Often Do Outbreaks Occur?
It is difficult to accurately generalize the frequency of herpes outbreaks as it varies from person to person, between the two types of herpes, and further varies depending on the location of herpes. As a general rule, symptomatic HSV-1 can break out anywhere from multiple times a year to once every few years, while the average symptomatic case of HSV-2 breaks out four to five times a year.
Herpes outbreaks can also be sporadic, meaning that one person in a group may have an outbreak without any others experiencing symptoms. This is most commonly seen with HSV-1 and typically occurs when someone becomes newly infected or reactivates the virus after having had a dormant infection for some time.
Outbreaks can also be clustered, which is when more than one person in a group experiences outbreak symptoms at the same time. This can be due to various factors including reactivation of HSV-1 or HSV-2 after being suppressed, contact with an infected person, and sharing sex toys or other objects that have been contaminated with saliva from an infected person.
Many people believe that if you don’t have any symptoms, then you don’t have herpes. This is simply not true. The virus can become active on someone’s skin with no symptoms but a real possibility for transmission – this is called “asymptomatic shedding”, and is part of the reason herpes is one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases. The fact that mild herpes sores can often pass as pimples or ingrown hairs does not help either.
The reason this happens is that upon exposure, herpes, the virus makes its way through the body into a collection of nerve cells by the spinal cord generally referred to as the dorsal root ganglion. There, the virus will often stay dormant for an indeterminate amount of time, and in some cases – for reasons medical science has yet to fully understand – possibly even for life.
How To Treat Outbreaks
If you have herpes, you know that outbreaks can be both painful and frustrating. While there is no cure for herpes, there are treatments that can help lessen the severity and frequency of outbreaks. Prescribed antiviral medications are the most common way to treat outbreaks, but there are also some things you can do to help ease the symptoms.
If you are experiencing an outbreak, it's important to stay hydrated. Drink plenty of water and other fluids, and avoid caffeine and alcohol. You may also find that ice packs or cold compresses can help to soothe the pain.
You can also try over-the-counter pain relievers like ibuprofen or acetaminophen to help reduce inflammation and pain. And if you're feeling particularly run down, consider taking a nap or resting as much as possible until the outbreak subsides.
Ultimately, the best way to manage herpes outbreaks is to keep your immune system strong. Eat a healthy diet, get enough exercise, and get enough sleep. These things will help your body to fight off the virus and reduce the number and severity of outbreaks.
This blog post is for educational purposes only and does not constitute medical or other professional advice. Your specific circumstances should be discussed with a healthcare provider. All statements of opinion represent the writers' judgement at the time of publication and are subject to change. Phoenix and its affiliates provide no express or implied endorsements of third parties or their advice, opinions, information, products, or services.