“How could this happen to me?” I’m often asked. My answer? Anyone can be infected by genital herpes very easily, especially if they fail to make love like the porcupine - very, very carefully. Today, it’s estimated that 50 million North Americans have genital herpes and each year another 500,000 are diagnosed with the infection. But there are many misconceptions about this common and worrying problem.
Myth # 1- You can’t get herpes from sitting on a toilet seat.
Doctors have said for years that the herpes virus dies quickly on exposure to air. But Dr. Trudy Larsen, a researcher at The University of California, startled the medical world several years ago. She asked a patient with an active herpes lesion to sit on a toilet seat. Four hours later she took cultures from the seat and found the virus was still alive and well. I doubt that many patients are infected in this way. But I think it’s prudent not to push your luck by sitting on a public toilet seat.
Myth # 2 - I can’t have sex again if I have herpes.
It’s possible to have an active sex life, if you avoid sex while lesions are still present. But you must also remember that viral shedding can occur even when there are no lesions. This is why it’s important to always use a condom. This reduces the chance of passing the infection to your partner, but does not completely rule out the possibility.
Myth # 3 - You can’t spread genital herpes to other parts of the body.
If you touch the genital area and then rub your eye or other parts of the body, you can spread the virus. It’s vitally important to wash your hands after you touch the genital area, as eye infections are serious.
Myth # 4 - Genital herpes can cause sterility.
Not so. But other sexually transmitted diseases such as gonorrhea and chlamydia can cause infertility. That is why patients with herpes should always have tests done to rule out these diseases. Prompt treatment can cure these problems.
Myth # 5 - Cold sores are an infection unrelated to herpes.
Cold sores are cousins of the genital herpes virus. So the virus can be transferred to the genital area by either your hands or by oral sex. It’s interesting that patients are devastated psychologically by genital herpes, but give oral herpes little thought.
Myth # 6 - It’s not safe to have children if you have herpes.
Patients can have a normal vaginal delivery of a fetus if there are no active lesions. But if lesions are present, a Caesarean section should be done to prevent infecting the newborn.
Myth # 7 - If your partner develops herpes, he or she, must be cheating on you.
Today, with the liberal sexual mores of our society, that may be the correct answer. But you may be wrong to jump to that conclusion. Long before you met, your partner may have been infected with the virus and be unaware of it due to mild symptoms. Now, a stressful event may trigger an active lesion. And don’t forget that one culprit, the toilet seat.
Myth # 8 - You need to have several sexual partners to get herpes.
Sex is like playing Russian roulette. The more often you pull the trigger, the greater the chance of leaving this world. And since as many as one in five North Americans have genital herpes, your luck could run out even on the first sexual encounter.
Myth # 9 -You never know when an attack of herpes has occurred.
Every person is different. But some patients develop a tingling, burning, or pain in the genital area several days before an attack occurs. Or feel they may be developing the flu.
Myth # 10 – I don’t need to tell my partner immediately that I have herpes.
It’s not a good idea to suddenly say “I have herpes” on the first date. Or use words like “incurable”. Unless your date is a member of the Hell’s Angels, it may be the last date. But don’t delay too long. Choose the moment carefully, and never have sex before telling your partner about this infection.
THE DOCTOR GAME: Dr. Gifford-Jones' common sense-based medical column offered with the occasional dash of humour has been published in Canadian newspapers for 30 years.
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