Think you can tell that a rash or sore is a genital herpes infection just by looking at it? If you said “no,” you’re right. You can’t. And neither can your healthcare provider. And yet in a recent ASHA survey of 369 people diagnosed with genital herpes by a healthcare provider, more than 26% said they were diagnosed with a visual exam alone.
While experienced healthcare providers may recognize the classic symptoms of a genital herpes infection, they also understand that there are other conditions that can be mistaken for herpes, and that they can’t make a definitive diagnosis with just a look. Even if the infection is herpes, a visual exam alone can’t determine herpes type—and that matters.
Why does virus type matter?
There are two types of herpes simplex virus (HSV) that can cause a genital infection: HSV-1 and HSV-2. While most genital herpes is caused by HSV-2, an increasing number of new genital herpes cases are caused by HSV-1. Knowing the virus type is important in understanding what to expect and determining treatment options.
For example, those with genital herpes caused by HSV-1 have far fewer outbreaks than those with genital herpes caused by HSV-2. In fact, many people never have another recurrence of genital HSV-1 after the initial outbreak. For those who have genital herpes is caused by HSV-2, recurrences are more frequent, so more of those with HSV-2 than HSV-1 benefit from suppressive therapy. Appropriate type-specific tests can help a patient better understand what to expect—you can read more about herpes testing here.
It’s clear that knowing the virus type is important, but 30% of respondents in our survey were either not told, or not sure if they were told, the herpes type they were diagnosed with. About a quarter of those who were retested (25.32%) did so because they were not originally told the virus type.
Understanding the diagnosis
In answers to the open-ended survey question “How would you describe your response to your diagnosis,” the words used most often in responses were (in order): shocked, depressed, devastated, and sad. Also frequently mentioned was the word “confused,” and with good reason. A diagnosis can be difficult and confusing, but
The vast majority of respondents to our survey (80.34%) received no counseling after their diagnosis, and 34.78% of those who were counseled after their diagnosis were not satisfied with the counseling they received. Most of these patients turned to the web for more information, from sites like ASHA.