Healthy Advice: Got itch?

Growing up, we all got a bit of a laugh at how awkward our parents were when trying to give us the sex talk.

Even if your parents were nervous or awkward about “the talk,” we all had sex education seminars or health class. This talk is always followed by the delightfully vivid sexually transmitted disease talk, and if your parents were too nervous to be straight with you, health class would scare the daylights out of you with all of the imagery of STDs, like a sex version of “Scared Straight.”

That all seems to go away in the heat of the moment. When the mood is right, any thoughts of “is he clean?” and “is that cold sore on her lip actually herpes?” are the farthest from your mind.

The prevalence of STDs among young adults, particularly herpes simplex virus type 1 and 2, is shocking. Research conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded that there are almost 9.5 million cases contracted each year by individuals between the ages of 15 and 24.

The Journal of the American Medical Association found that 73.9 percent of the American population has some form of herpes. What’s more unbelievable is how relatively small precautions can help prevent a lifetime of sitting down to have the awkward “I have an STD talk” with a new partner.

Virologist Dr. Anna Wald told The New York Times in 2010 that having herpes makes the conversation even more difficult.

“Herpes has a stigma attached to it that even HIV doesn’t have anymore. It’s very rare to get people to talk about it as openly,” Wald said.

Open dialogue about STDs is a powerful tool to help overcome the stigma attached to having an STD and can also encourage education about the condition. The CDC explains that herpes is a virus that exists in two forms, HSV-1 and HSV-2. Because it is a virus, infection with herpes simply cannot be eradicated, only treated symptomatically.

Herpes is particularly hard to recognize because most individuals are asymptomatic or experience flu-like symptoms and skin conditions that are easily confused with other infections. According to the CDC, 81.1 percent of individuals with HSV-1 or -2 do not know they have the virus.

Sexual contact is the most obvious mode of transmission for herpes, and is the only way to contract HSV-1. HSV-2 can be transmitted through any direct skin-to-skin contact. Even a small peck can lead to infection. The CDC warns immune-compromised individuals to be particularly diligent in protecting themselves against herpes because HSV-1 and -2 can lead to life-threatening complications such as encephalitis, a swelling and irritation of the brain, and aseptic meningitis, a form of meningitis that can lead to encephalitis.

A few simple tasks can greatly reduce your chances of contracting herpes. MIT medical advises that you wash yourself after engaging in sexual activity because herpes is a virus which means it is surrounded by a lipid coating that can be destroyed by soap. However, you cannot simply rely on taking a shower; some form of protection is a must. A condom is a necessity when engaging in any form of sexual activity to protect against HSV-2 since it can be contracted by skin-to-skin contact; though, lesions and blisters can form on areas of the body that protection simply cannot cover.

The only surefire ways to ensure that you don’t contract herpes are abstinence or participating in a monogamous relationship in which both partners have been clinically proven to be without herpes. While this may not be practical for everyone, do your research on various methods of protection instead of neglecting to use any protection at all. If you don’t like condoms, try a spermicidal jelly with infection resistant properties.

Don’t be tricked into thinking that oral sex doesn’t come with its fair share of risks; use a dental dam or a vaginal condom for protection. Whatever method you choose, respect yourself and your partners enough to be vigilant in preventing the transmission of STDs.

Trisha Thacker is a biology junior and may be reached at [email protected]

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