First order of business: condoms CANNOT ALWAYS protect you from catching STDs. Why? Because your body is at risk of exposure beyond just the genital area. Condoms cover the head and shaft of the penis, but if you've got a cut or a nick from shaving/trimming the area, you're just as risk of catching the STD as you would be if you weren't wearing anything at all!
The Herpes Simplex Virus I & II, AKA HSV I/II, is a good example of this. One of the big things health professionals advise when a patient is concerned about transferring herpes via cold sore to their partners is to avoid coming into contact with your partner if you have an open sore, cut or chapped lips, as this can increase your level of exposure.
Now, the question I want to ask you is, what do you think will happen if you accidentally give yourself a nick or cut from shaving or trimming down below? Do you think your chances of catching a transmittable disease will increase? The answer is yes, of course you would, but it tends to be something that a lot of people don't stop to think about.
Too often as a clinical worker, we’d have patients come in for sores at the base or around the penis and the first thing they would tell us was “But I wore a condom!!” It’s a huge misconception that condoms can protect against all STD's. I want everyone to understand: You need to make sure when you're all groomed in your private parts that you don’t have any nicks or cuts if you're planning to have sex later.
There’s two different forms of the virus, HSV I and II.
HSV I is commonly known as “cold sores.” Now, these sores often carry the stigma of having been contracted sexually, but the reality is that they are extremely contagious very easy to pass along to others by simply sharing drinks, towels, or chap stick. Most people who have cold sores often got them as children, from parents giving them kisses, drinking from their aunt's or uncle's glasses of water, etc.
In terms of contracting the disease as an adult, however, cold sores can be spread via kissing and oral sex. It is very difficult for someone who does not have them to be on the vigilant in avoiding contracting cold sores, because these sores can be transmitted even when symptoms aren’t present (we will discuss this more below).
It really comes down to personal responsibility on the part of the person who has them to quarantine themselves—avoid sharing drinks, kissing, or other activities that would spread the disease. Unfortunately, most people aren’t going to maintain this level of responsibility, which is why 60%-95% of adults have some form of HSV I or II, and in some areas like New York City for example, nearly 28% of people people are reported to have HSV II Genital Herpes.
The best course of defence is to avoid sharing drinks with people (cooties are real!), exercise caution with the number of partners you have, and have open discussions with them about their history and ask If they’ve ever been tested.
You’d be surprised how many people open up to you if you ask in a non-judgmental manner; In their mind, they might see you as a long term partner, so they were planning on telling you eventually.
HSV II is often referred to as genital herpes, where painful sores are present in or around the genital area. People can become infected through sexual contact, whether it is vaginal, anal or oral. HSV I and II are not exclusive to the mouth and genital regions, both can be transmitted to either area.
HSV I and II can, as with all STDs, show no signs or symptoms. Some people can catch the disease, never show symptoms, and live their entire lives without ever knowing that they are infected.
For most people though, symptoms begin about 5-7 days after exposure to an infected person. People report having intense fevers and chills lasting a few days, followed by a large amount of swollen blisters popping up around the area of contact. Health professionals say that the first outbreak or “flare up” is always the worst because your body is reacting to the virus for the first time and thus, has no antibodies to combat the virus. Over time, the flare ups will be less intense and painful, occurring only every 4-12 months, sometimes longer. Again, it depends on the person; some may never show symptoms again, while others may get them every 3-4 months. At that point, an infected person may want to take medication to minimize these pesky flare ups (see treatment).
The classic initial symptom of a flare up is the “hot and tingly” feeling felt on the lip for HSV I and II. The area becomes swollen and warm to the touch. Around 24-48 hours later, the second stage begins with a distinct hard or granule-like feeling start to form at the center of the swollen area. This is the virus replicating itself for the next stage.
The third stage is when the area “ruptures,” creating an open sore and releasing the virus, also known as “viral shedding.” While all stages are considered a high risk time for infecting others, it is this stage in which the virus is most contagious.
As mentioned before, sharing anything from silverware, cups, to towels and chap stick should be avoided. Even using brushes at the makeup counters can put you at risk. Oral sex is a not advised, as it is possible to transfer the cold sore HSV I virus to the genital area.
Without treatment, it can take 2-3 weeks for the sores crust over and begin the slow process of healing. They will often dry and split, leaving painful exposed wounds. An over the counter balm can usually keep this from happening. Its advised that you wait until the area has completely healed before resuming any intimate contact with someone to minimize the chance of spreading the virus.
Usually, the appearance of Herpes I and II is pretty typical and does not require any kind of testing. However, because many can still be infected without ever showing symptoms, doctors may sometimes suggest lab tests for those who have been sexually active or feel they may have come in contact with someone carrying the virus.
Currently, there is no known cure for Herpes I or II. Vaccines are currently in the testing stage but not yet available to the public. There are, however, a few drugs available to manage the flare ups and speed up the healing process.
One of the most effective forms of topical treatment available is a product called Xerese. It was a mix of two other products that when applied five times a day for five days, the blister would clear up and sometimes not fully develop at all. Unfortunately, very few forms of insurance cover the cost for the appointment and the out-of-pocket cost runs well over $1000, putting it out of range for almost everyone.
However, there is a way to make your own form of the appointment for a fraction of the cost. Doctor’s I’ve worked for in the past would often prescribe patients the two separate ingredients, Hydrocortisone 1% ($5) & Acyclovir 5% ($204), and tell them to mix one part of each when treating the infected area. Please discuss your options with your doctor before going out and trying any of these methods on your own, as some people may be prone allergic reactions to corticosteroid creams like hydrocortisone.
While still inconclusive, preliminary studies have shown that taking supplements such as L-lysine and Zinc, help strengthen the body’s defense in keeping flare ups to a minimum. Because they are relatively inexpensive, doctors often recommend them to be taken alongside their prescribed medications or by themselves in the event they cannot afford the Acyclovir cream/pills.
As with most STDs, having HSV I or II does increase your risk of contracting HIV when you are having an outbreak due to the exposed sores, but on its own, these diseases aren't going to do much damage to your body. Having an open discussion with your partner about their history, continuing to use condoms, and most importantly avoiding the sharing of drinks and utensils, can minimize your risk of infection.