According to a much-tweeted-about report, herpes diagnoses increased during Coachella this year. Online herpes diagnosis and treatment website HerpAlert representative Dr. Lynn Marie Morski told People that HerpAlert saw a spike in people seeking a herpes diagnosis after Coachella began.
Usually, HerpAlert handles about 12 diagnoses per day, but during the first two days of Coachella, they received almost 250 inquiries, Dr. Morski said. She added that in the 13 days following the beginning of Coachella, HerpAlert received 1,105 consultation requests from the area around Coachella, as well as the Los Angeles area, Orange County, and San Diego county.
So, should you be freaking out if you had sex at Coachella? Not so fast. First, a bit of googling shows that HerpAlert has previously notified the media when they see spikes in people seeking herpes diagnoses in southern California — and these instances all coincide with well-attended events, such as the Oscars and NBA All-Star weekend. Keep in mind that Coachella brings 250,000 festival-goers to the area, almost tripling the population of Indio, California. It makes sense that when you have a dramatic increase of people in a certain area, you’d also see an increase in contagious diseases.
More importantly, herpes is both an incredibly common, and an incredibly misunderstood, virus. According to Planned Parenthood, more than half of Americans have oral herpes, and more than one out of six Americans have genital herpes.
“I’m wondering, why is this news?” sex educator Emily L. Depasse tells Refinery29. “Why do we care that there’s an increase in [herpes virus] HSV? Most of us have one type of it, or know someone who does. One in two people under 25 who are sexually active contract an STI, and that’s Coachella’s prime age range. To me, the noteworthy story shouldn’t be that HSV is happening, but what are we doing to educate people about it?"
So, before you freak out about this story, here's what you should know about herpes.
What Is Herpes?
There are two different, but similar, types of herpes virus: herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) and herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2). Both viruses are part of a family of viruses called herpesviridae, which also includes the viruses responsible for chicken pox, shingles, and mono. Either HSV-1 or HSV-2 can lead to either oral herpes or genital herpes.
What Are the Symptoms Of Herpes?
Many people who have herpes never see noticeable symptoms, and may never know they have herpes. In fact, herpes is not included in most STI screenings.
The most common symptom of genital herpes is developing painful or itchy blisters on or around the genitals, butt, or inner thighs; these blisters can break and turn into sores. When these blisters appear, it’s called a herpes outbreak. The first time someone gets an outbreak is usually longer and more painful than subsequent outbreaks. Along with the blisters, other possible symptoms include pain when peeing or difficulty peeing, genital pain, and flu-like symptoms such as a fever, headache, swollen glands, aches, or chills. These symptoms are most common during the first outbreak.
Oral herpes symptoms include developing sores on or around your lips and mouth, often called cold sores. Cold sores can also appear inside your mouth, but, according to Planned Parenthood, this usually happens only the first few times you have an outbreak.
How Is Herpes Spread?
Genital herpes is spread through skin-to-skin sexual contact — including but not limited to vaginal, oral, and anal sex — with someone who has herpes. Herpes is most easily spread when someone is showing symptoms. The risk can be reduced, though not entirely eliminated, by using barrier methods such as condoms or dental dams, and a person with herpes can take medication to reduce the risk of transmission. According to Planned Parenthood, it’s rare, but possible, for someone with genital herpes to transmit it to their child while giving birth.
According to the American Sexual Health Association (ASHA), oral herpes is spread through direct skin-to-skin contact between the contagious area and broken skin and mucous membrane tissue, such as kissing someone who is having an outbreak. You can also develop oral herpes through giving oral sex to someone who has genital herpes, but this is rare.
Can You Get Herpes From Sharing A Drink Or Kissing?
Oral herpes can be transmitted through kissing — in fact, according to ASHA, most people with oral herpes contract it through kissing relatives or friends as a child. Neither oral herpes nor genital herpes can be spread through sharing drinks or meals.
Can Herpes Be Cured?
Herpes cannot be cured, but it can be managed. Medication can help prevent outbreaks, make them go away sooner when they do appear, and reduce the risk of transmission. Your doctor can advise on the right treatment for you.
There are also at-home options you can take during an outbreak, such as taking a warm bath, putting an ice pack on the sore area, and taking an over-the-counter pain reliever. Avoiding stress, getting enough sleep, and eating healthfully can help prevent outbreaks.
Is Herpes Really A Serious STI?
Herpes outbreaks can be painful and annoying, but herpes is an incredibly common virus that doesn’t deserve the stigma it has. “We often have this attitude that it could never happen to me, it could never happen to one of my friends,” Depasse says. “But then you hear that herpes is so common, and when you get it, you feel so isolated because no one is talking about it.”
A herpes diagnosis doesn’t change most people’s day-to-day life. “Everyone’s body responds differently to outbreaks and stress and what could bring that on. I’ve only had two outbreaks, and the first was my primary outbreak in 2015,” Depasse says. “I live a normal life, but the shame can be very debilitating when you're first diagnosed and you don’t have this information.”