Herpes: The STD You Already Have

Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) aren't something that most people take lightly. They conjure up visions of dire complications, they hurt and, let's face it, they are embarrassing to talk about with your partner or your doctor.

They're also very common. About 19 million new cases of sexually transmitted disease surface each year in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Nearly half of these occur in people between the ages of 15 to 24. A common one, genital herpes, is caused by the herpes simplex viruses Type 1 (HSV-1) or type 2 (HSV-2). Herpes stays in the body for an indefinite period of time.

Don't think you have herpes because you've never had an outbreak? Approximately 85 percent of the world's population is affected by either form of the herpes virus. About one in six people in the United States has a genital HSV-2 infection, according to the CDC, and the virus is more common in women. Herpes results in outbreaks that appear weeks or months apart and cause symptoms like blisters on and around the rectum and genitals.

"The herpes virus stays within the nerve root and waits for an opportunity to come out," says Svetlana Kogan, MD, founder of Doctors at Trump Place in New York City. "There are certain situations that make it more likely for this to happen." A flareup of herpes can be brought on by poor nutrition, inadequate sleep, stress, changes in the weather, illnesses such as colds and flu, and being in direct sunlight.

How to Prevent an Outbreak

But there are steps that you can take to prevent or minimize an outbreak.

The best way to minimize or avoid a flareup of herpes is to take preventive measures, says Tracy Zivin-Tutela, MD, an infectious disease attending physician at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital Center in New York City. Here's what you can do.

As a stressbuster, build regular exercise into your routine.

Herpes simplex appears on the lips as cold sores or fever blisters, and these are definitely more likely to appear if you've been out in the sun, says Zivin-Tutela. Use a lip balm with a sun block on your lips so that you won't be exposing yourself to unnecessary sunlight.

A good night's sleep can be elusive. If you can't drop off,  try taking a hot bath or going in the hot tub to reduce stress, Kogan says. Sipping herbal tea at bedtime also can make you sleepy. Avoid drinking too much alcohol, which interferes with good quality sleep.

Keep your immune system strong by eating well, which means lots of fresh fruits and vegetables.

Be vigilant about washing your hands and not touching your nose, mouth and eyes so you can reduce your risk of getting the flu or a cold, Zivin-Tutela advises.

If you keep getting flare-ups, your health care provider may prescribe an antiviral medication that you take as soon as you feel the symptoms start up. This can dramatically lessen the severity of the symptoms. Valtrex, Acyclovir, and Famvir are three medications likely to be prescribed, Zivin-Tutela says.

If you are experiencing frequent outbreaks of herpes, your doctor may put you on a low daily dose of one of the antiviral meds. "Not only does this prevent outbreaks,  but it decreases the chances of transmitting herpes to your partner," Zivin-Tutela says.