Herpes is a family of viruses, typically transmitted through skin-to-skin contact, entering the body through nerve endings then staying in the nervous system and resurfacing during ‘outbreaks’. The Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV) typically causes genital herpes and cold sores.


There are two Herpes simplex viruses called Herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV 1) and Herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV 2):

  • Usually HSV type 1 is the virus that causes cold sores, and almost 80% of adult Australians carry HSV type 11
  • Usually HSV type 2 causes genital herpes, transmitted through vaginal, oral or anal sex. About 12% of adult Australians carry HSV type 21

Many people don’t realise that cold sores can cause genital herpes if passed on during oral sex.

Of the Australians who have HSV type 2, 20% know that they have the virus because they have blisters or sores in the genital area. The other 80% either experience minor symptoms or do not exhibit any symptoms and are unaware that they are affected which means that many people are passing on the virus unknowingly.


HSV has a number of manifestations and affects different people in different ways (even on different parts of the body), so there is no such thing as a typical HSV outbreak.

Common signs and symptoms include tingling, itching and redness that are then followed by a rash and small sores which then heal. HSV can be mistaken for other common genital infections in particular thrush.


Because of the myths and stigma surrounding HSV, many people feel isolated. The most common myth is that only ‘promiscuous’ and ‘dirty’ people have genital herpes. This creates a sense of shame, making it harder for people with HSV to reveal that they have it.


Reasons some choose to ignore the symptoms or signs include:

  • They may show signs of HSV, but live in denial because of the associated shame with the virus.
  • It can be an awkward thing to discuss, even with a doctor
  • Because of the stigma associated with the virus, they may perceived as having casual sex with many people
  • They don’t tell their partner that they have HSV – because they might be accused of being unfaithful

To reduce the spread of the virus, it’s critical for people to understand how it occurs, its affect on people’s lives, how it can be best managed and treated.

While HSV may not be a hot topic to talk about over dinner, it’s more common than most people think, affecting people of all ages and lifestyles. If you don’t have HSV, there’s a high chance that you know someone who does.