Helping Others Stay Safe
People with the herpes virus must take precautions to avoid spreading the virus to other people. During active outbreaks, people should keep affected areas away from other people until the symptoms have healed.
These steps are particularly important with genital herpes. Because genital herpes can be transmitted during and between outbreaks, patients should:
- Have their partner(s) undergo blood tests to determine if they have antibodies to the virus. Knowledge of a partner’s status helps couples to decide what steps are required to reduce the risk of transmission.
- Consider abstaining from sex or practise mutual monogamy with one uninfected partner.
Pregnant woman with genital herpes and who have active symptoms can transmit the virus to the baby as it passes through the birth canal. To prevent this, birth by Caesarian section is recommended. A doctor will advise the mother on the best form of delivery.
People with oral herpes must also take precautions:
- Never touch an open sore and then your eye, as it can result in herpes keratitis.
- Avoid touching a newborn baby, as newborns can be infected by exposure to HSV.
- Use condoms or other barriers during oral sex to reduce the risk of transmission.
People with herpes zoster will also need to be cautious. Shingles itself isn’t contagious, but the virus that causes it can be spread from a person with active shingles to a person who has never had chickenpox during the blister phase through direct contact with the rash. The person exposed would develop chickenpox, not shingles.
- The contagious phase is from blister onset to blister crusting.
- The virus is not spread through sneezing, coughing or casual contact.
- Somebody with post-herpetic neuralgia is not infectious.
The best thing to do is to lower the risk of contagion by covering the rash. Don’t touch or scratch the rash, and wash your hands often. Once the rash has developed crusts, you are no longer contagious.
During inactive periods, symptoms may not be present, but viruses may still be shed. With genital herpes, people should:
- Use latex condoms to protect the mucous membranes that are the most likely sites of transmission. Note that condoms do not cover all the potential sites for shedding (i.e., nearby genital skin).
- Consider undergoing daily suppressive therapy using valacyclovir, which has been shown to reduce the risk of herpes transmission.
- Develop good hygiene habits. The virus may be transmitted if the skin in uninfected areas is touched after contact with an open sore.
The psychological stress of having herpes can vary depending on the type of virus a person has. For example, common reactions to a diagnosis of genital herpes (and its association as a sexually transmitted disease) include shame, depression or anger. These emotions often fade over time. In addition, some people may find it hard to adjust their sexual habits and lifestyle to prevent spreading genital herpes. For people experiencing emotional distress after a diagnosis, seeking professional support can help them to:
- Recognize that a genital herpes infection is a health issue, not a moral judgment.
- Develop a positive self-image and stop perceiving genital herpes as social stigma.
- Stop assuming that having herpes will prevent them from being romantically involved or having successful long-term relationships.
Professional counselling may also benefit people with herpes zoster if they are distressed over physical symptoms, lifestyle changes, or their personal appearance.
The physical impact of herpes on infected, otherwise healthy individuals is the pain and unsightly appearance of the blisters during outbreaks. The pain can be mild, as in the case of a minor oral herpes outbreak, to severe, as in the case of shingles.
People with herpes zostercan be intensely uncomfortable. Some people with shingles also develop post-herpetic neuralgia, a long-lasting pain that persists long after the rash has subsided. This pain can be severe enough to cause insomnia, weight loss, depression and preoccupation with finding pain relief. Both shingles and post-herpetic neuralgia can disrupt daily activities. Some people experience extreme sensitivity and find gentle touches, drafts and temperature changes unbearable. For these reasons, people with herpes zoster will want to work closely with a doctor to manage and alleviate their condition.
Regardless of the type of herpes virus a person has, pain and discomfort is best managed with the help of your doctor.