Anonymous on August 25, 2011

Is it possible to have herpes and not know it?

I’m a 21-year-old woman. I'm. About six months ago, I found out that I have genital herpes. The only person I could have contracted it from is my current boyfriend (he’s my first). We’re close and I believe he didn’t know he had the virus, but my family and friends think he must have known. Is it possible that a man might not know he has the herpes virus?

answered by Terri Warren, MS, RN, ANP on August 25, 2011

Thank you for sharing your concern. Understandably, it sounds like this is difficult issue to discuss with your family and friends, as well as your boyfriend...but you’re doing the right thing by getting informed.

The truth is, it’s not only possible, but very common to have herpes and not know it.  In fact, about 70% of people with oral herpes (cold sores) don't have symptoms that they recognize or recall. And 80-90% of people who have genital herpes caused by herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2) also have no idea they are infected.

Do you know what type of herpes virus is causing your genital herpes? There are two kinds of herpes simplex virus...type 1 and type 2 (HSV-1 and HSV-2). It’s important to know which type you have.

Allow me to explain...

If you have an HSV-1 genital herpes infection, it’s likely that your boyfriend passed it to you through oral sex. In fact, among women your age, more than 75% of new genital herpes infections happen this way.

Yet many people aren't aware that genital herpes can be transmitted from the mouth to the genital area of their partner by giving them oral sex. But if your boyfriend has ever had a cold sore (oral herpes), that’s probably how he passed his herpes infection to your genitals.

Of course, your boyfriend could have an HSV-2 infection, instead...but it’s quite likely he wouldn’t have known about that infection, either. Studies tell us that 80-90% of people who have type 2 genital herpes have no idea they are infected.

Why? Because herpes, like many sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), can be “silent” (showing now signs or symptoms) for a long time.

Get tested. If you don’t know what herpes type you and your boyfriend have, I encourage both of you to get screened for both HSV-1 and HSV-2 antibodies and to consult a doctor about treatment options.

Remember, while herpes isn’t curable, it’s not life-threatening in adults...and it’s definitely treatable and manageable. As long as you get treatment and avoid sexual activity during a herpes outbreak, you can enjoy a healthy sex life with a low risk of infecting a future partner.

You might want to learn more about herpes prevention, testing and treatment in our Expert Guide to Herpes 1 + 2.

Hopefully, this information is helpful to you and your boyfriend, and helps put your mind at ease.  

Related info:

Terri Warren, MS, RN, ANP

Warren is a Nurse Practitioner and owner of Westover Heights Clinic in Oregon. She is a renown expert and author in the field of genital herpes research, diagnosis and treatment. Warren was educated at Oregon Health and Sciences University and the University of Portland.

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