- Genital herpes is a common sexually transmitted infection that affects both men and women. Many infected people have no symptoms or signs of genital herpes. An infected person can be contagious, even if they have no visible sores.
- Genital herpes is caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). Sexual contact is the primary way that the virus spreads. After the initial infection, the virus lies dormant in your body and can reactivate several times a year.
- There is no cure for genital herpes, but medications can ease symptoms and reduce the risk of infecting others. Condoms can also help prevent transmission of the virus.
- The CDC estimates that, annually, 776,000 people in the United States get new herpes infections. Nationwide, 16.2% of persons ages 14-49 have HSV-2 infection.
- THE HSV-2 infection is more common among women than among men. Infection is more easily transmitted from men to women than from women to men.
What are the symptoms?
- The majority of people who have been infected with HSV never know they have the disease, because they have no signs or symptoms. The signs and symptoms of HSV can be so mild that they go unnoticed.
- When present, the initial symptom of genital herpes is usually pain or itching, beginning within a few weeks after exposure to an infected partner. After several days, small red bumps or tiny white blisters may appear. They then rupture, becoming ulcers that ooze or bleed. Eventually, scabs form and the ulcers heal.
- In women, sores can erupt in the vaginal area, external genitals, buttocks, anus, cervix.
- In men, sores can appear on the penis, scrotum, buttocks, anus, or thighs or inside the urethra, the channel inside the penis leading to the bladder.
- While you have ulcers, it may be painful to urinate. You may also experience pain and tenderness in your genital area until the infection clears. During the initial outbreak, you may have flu-like signs and symptoms, such as headache, muscle aches and fever, as well as swollen lymph nodes in your groin.
- Recurrences are common. Genital herpes is different for each person. The signs and symptoms may recur, off and on, for years. Some people experience numerous episodes each year. For many people, the outbreaks are less frequent as time passes.
- Various factors may trigger outbreaks, including stress, fatigue, illness, surgery, menstruation.
When should I see a doctor?
If you suspect that you have genital herpes or any other sexually transmitted infection you should see your doctor.
What causes genital herpes?
Two types of herpes simplex virus infections can cause genital herpes:
- HSV-1. This is the type that usually causes cold sores or fever blisters around your mouth, though it can be spread to your genital area during oral sex.
- HSV-2. This is the type that commonly causes genital herpes. The virus spreads through sexual contact and skin-to-skin contact. HSV-2 is very common and highly contagious, whether or not you have an open sore.
Because the virus dies quickly outside the body, it is nearly impossible to get the infection through contact with toilets, towels, or other objects used by an infected person.
What are the risk factors for genital herpes?
Your risk of becoming infected with genital herpes may be increased if you:
- Are a woman. Women are more likely to have genital herpes than are men. The virus is sexually transmitted more easily from men to women than it is from women to men.
- Have many sexual partners. Each additional partner broadens your opportunity for being exposed to the virus that causes genital herpes.
What are the complications of genital herpes?
- Other sexually transmitted infections. Having genital sores increases your risk of transmitting or contracting other sexually transmitted infections, including the AIDS virus.
- Newborn infection. Babies born to infected mothers can be exposed to the virus during the berthing process. This may result in brain damage, blindness, or death for the newborn.
- Bladder problems. In some cases, the sores associated with genital herpes can cause inflammation around the urethra, the tube that delivers urine from your bladder to the outside world. The swelling can close the urethra for several days, requiring the insertion of a catheter to drain your bladder.
- Meningitis. In rare instance, HSV infection leads to inflammation of the membranes and cerebrospinal fluid surrounding your brain and spinal cord.
- Rectal inflammation (proctitis). Genital herpes can lead to inflammation of the lining of the rectum, particularly in men who have sex with men.
How is genital herpes diagnosed?
Your doctor can usually diagnose genital herpes based on a physical exam and the results of certain lab tests:
- DNA test. A sample of your blood, sore tissue or spinal fluid can be tested to establish the presence of HSV and determine which type of HSV you have.
- Blood test. This test analyzes a sample of your blood for the presence of HSV antibodies to detect a past herpes infection.
- Viral culture. This test involves taking a tissue sample or scraping of the sores for examination at the lab.
What are the treatments for genital herpes?
There is no cure for genital herpes. Treatment with prescription antiviral medications may:
- Help sores heal sooner during an outbreak.
- Lessen the severity and duration of symptoms in recurrent outbreaks.
- Reduce the frequency of recurrences.
- Minimize the chance of transmitting the herpes virus to another.
Antiviral medications used for genital herpes include:
- Acyclovir (Zovirax)
- Famciclovir (Famvir)
- Valacyclovir (Valtrex)
Your doctor may recommend that you only take the medicines when you’re experiencing symptoms of an outbreak. Or your doctor may recommend that you take a medicine daily, even when you’re not experiencing any signs of an outbreak, to minimize your chances of recurrent outbreaks.
People who are experiencing severe complications may need to be hospitalized, so they can receive antiviral medication intravenously.
How do I cope with finding out I have genital herpes?
Finding out that you have genital herpes may be quite distressing. Among the tumult of emotions, you might feel shock, shame or anger. You may be suspicious or resentful of your partner if you think he or she “gave” you the disease. Or you might be fearful of rejection by your current partner or future partners.
What you are feeling is normal and perfectly valid. But you can cope with your diagnosis of genital herpes in a healthy and effective way:
- Communicate with your partner. Be open and honest about your feelings. Don’t be too quick to assign blame. Genital herpes can lie dormant in your body for years, so it’s often difficult to determine exactly when you became infected.
- Educate yourself. Talk with your doctor or a counselor to learn how to live with the condition and minimize your chances of infecting future partners. Learn about your treatment options so you understand how to best manage outbreaks.
- Join a support group. Look for a group in your area or online so that you can talk about your feelings and learn from others’ experiences.
How can I prevent getting genital herpes?
The suggestions for preventing genital herpes are the same as those for preventing other sexually transmitted infections. The key is to avoid being infected with HSV, which is highly contagious while lesions are present. The best way to prevent infection is to abstain from sexual activity or to limit sexual contact to only one person who is infection-free. Short or that, you can:
- Use, or have your partner use, a latex condom during each sexual contact.
- Limit the number of sex partners
- Avoid intercourse if either partner has an outbreak of herpes in the genital area or anywhere else.
What if I have genital herpes and I am pregnant?
If you are pregnant, be sure to tell your doctor that you have genital herpes or, if you’re unsure, ask to be tested for it. Your doctor may recommend that you start taking herpes antiviral medications late in pregnancy to try to prevent an outbreak from occurring around the time of delivery. If you’re having an outbreak when you go into labor, your doctor will probably suggest a cesarean section to reduce the risk of passing the virus to your baby.