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Herpes Outbreaks at Music Festivals: Are News Reports Accurate?

Herpes spike at Coachella! Online news portals have been brimming with updates about a huge increase in new herpes cases near the site of the popular music festival in California. But is this worrying news accurate? Apparently not.

The whole story started in April with TMZ reporting that an app called HerpAlert noted a significant rise in herpes cases in the first two days of the California-based festival. The app claims to serve about 12 people a day on average in Southern California. The first 48 hours of the music event brought them 250 new patients.

Rolling Stone magazine reporters decided to dig beyond the scandalous headlines and get to the bottom of this click-attracting story. It turns out that not all people who used the app were actually freshly diagnosed with herpes.

Among the patients were people already infected with the virus. Herpes is a lifelong condition with periodic outbreaks which require treatment. TMZ later clarified that the local health department hadn’t noted an outbreak during the festival.

It would be unusual for so many people to develop visual symptoms of the virus one to two days after having sex. Billboard Magazine quotes Dr. Jill Grimes from the University of Massachusetts Medical School, who explains that herpes symptoms “don’t typically show up in 24 hours”. She adds that symptoms show up on average after three to four days. It can, however, take as long as 12 days to realize you have a problem.

Sensational titles seem to forget that herpes is very common not just among music lovers. According to the World Health Organization, 3.7 billion people worldwide have HSV-1 type (cold sores) and 417 million have genital herpes. All these people are under the age of 50.

The articles were right about one thing. Festivals such as Coachella create ideal conditions for sexually transmitted infections to spread. There are lots of opportunities to have casual sexual contacts, people drink and use drugs. It’s easy to lose your inhibitions. Also, when you’re intoxicated it’s much easier to forget about safer sex practices.

Herpes is a tricky virus. There is no foolproof way to protect yourself from getting it. You can contract it during oral, vaginal or anal sex or even through intimate touch. Whenever you notice sores on your partner’s body, especially mouth and genitals, abstain from any form of sexual contacts until the symptoms are gone.

Two people holding hands with condom in palm.

Condoms don’t provide full protection against herpes infections but they are the best way to reduce the risk

The virus is the most contagious during outbreaks. Unfortunately, it can spread even when the symptoms are gone. To minimize the risk, always use condoms and other barriers, such as dental dams and gloves, for erotic contacts and intercourse with people whose health status you don’t know. If you’re in a monogamous relationship, make sure you both get tested first before you stop using condoms.

There is no cure for herpes at the moment. Luckily, there are effective treatments available, such as acyclovir or valacyclovir. Those pills help ease the discomfort and shorten the outbreaks. If you have herpes, talk to your doctor about taking the medication daily to reduce the risk of transmitting the virus to your partner(s).

Remember to start treatment on first signs of an outbreak. This way it will be the most effective. To learn about your options and to get medical advice from a licensed physician, go to our sexual health page.

Anka Grzywacz is a sexologist, reproductive health expert and Certified Sex Coach™. In her online practice she helps busy parents solve their intimate problems.