Closeup photo of a boy and girl holding handsWe have been discussing sexually transmitted infections (STI’s) in teens and young adults in this series. Throughout the series, we’ve talked about the importance of communication between parents and their teens to prevent STI’s.  I want to emphasize that parents are an invaluable resource for teens on both information about sexual health, and also a resource for healthy relationships. As the mother of a new baby, I still need to experience the toddler years and the terrible 2’s, but I’m planning to communicate and model normal romantic relationships as soon as she can understand them.

Let’s cover a topic that is associated with a lot of stigma, yet is very common: Genital herpes. Most people know someone who’s had a cold sore or “fever blister.” Believe it or not, that is a herpes infection. Given how common herpes is, most of us also know someone with genital herpes too. There are 2 different types of herpes that can affect the genital track: HSV 1 and HSV2.

HSV 1 classically affects the mouth (it’s the usual source behind a cold sore), but it can also lead to sores in the anal and genital regions. HSV 2 classically leads to genital herpes, but it can also lead to mouth sores. Both types of herpes are spread to sexual contact (oral, anal, or vaginal sex), but a person who is infected can spread the infection to other areas (like the eyes) if they touch a sore and don’t wash their hands. The distribution of HSV 1 and 2 infections is changing as our cultural sexual practices change: for example, HSV 1 is being found more and more in genital sores which is likely related to the increased acceptance of oral sex.

Herpes is common: about 1 in 6 people ages 14-49 have genital herpes from HSV 2. Females are more likely to get it from a male partner (than a male getting it from a female partner). HSV 1 is even more common, but it may only affect the mouth.

Herpes sores typically look like small blisters, but a person can have herpes and spread the infection to a partner even if they don’t have symptoms. The first outbreak of sores is usually the most severe and can be accompanied by pain, itching, and burning, however many people have no symptoms at all. Herpes isn’t curable, but most people have fewer (and less uncomfortable) outbreaks as time goes by. There are antiviral medications a health care provider can give to shorten the duration or outbreaks and the number of outbreaks each year, but once infected, you never get rid of herpes.

Herpes can cause trouble: for teens and others infected, it can be hard to talk about with potential partners. For pregnant moms, they can potentially pass along a life-threatening infection to a newborn, so prenatal care is extremely important. If your teen is concerned about a new sore, they should see their healthcare provider. Herpes is diagnosed either on visual exam (the sores or blisters have a typical appearance) or with a sample being sent to the lab. It can also be diagnosed using a blood test.

The only way to 100% guarantee a person will not be infected with herpes is to not have sex at all. Condoms do decrease the risk, but a person can have a sore in a location that isn’t covered by a condom and infected people can spread herpes even if they don’t have any symptoms.

So what can parents do to prevent their teens from getting an STI?

  • Communicate: talk about your expectations around sex and dating. This isn’t a one time ‘THE TALK’ but an ongoing discussion about intimacy, dating, relationships, your family values, and expectations of behavior. Keep the dialogue open so your teen can ask questions. If you don’t know an answer, talk with your family’s health care provider.
  • Model the type of relationship you’d like your teen to have.
  • If your teen is sexually active, make sure they are having yearly screenings for sexual health by a medical provider
  • If you feel uncomfortable talking to your teen about sexual health, ask their medical provider to approach the topic or ask a trusted adult/friend/family member to start the conversations.