Genital Herpes (Herpes Simplex)
What is Genital Herpes?
Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted disease (STD) that is caused by the herpes simplex virus, resulting in the appearance of blisters on the genitals or rectum and mouth area (oral herpes), which eventually break; leaving skin lesions similar to cold sores that last for several weeks.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the United States, at least 45 million people over the age of 12 are infected with this disease. Herpes can affect both men and women, although it is more commonly found in women. Although outbreaks of genital herpes can be controlled through proper treatment, there is no cure, making the disease a source of embarrassment for many of those affected by it.
How is Genital Herpes Transmitted?
Like many sexually transmitted diseases, genital herpes is contacted primarily through sexual intercourse (i.e. genital-genital contact) with someone infected with the herpes virus. However, it can also be spread through oral sex or close skin-to-skin contact. Although infection is most common when one partner has visible symptoms of herpes, it can be spread at any time, even in the absence of apparent symptoms.
Herpes can also be spread from one body part to another, such as from the genital area to the fingers, then to the eyes or other body parts. It can also be spread from a mother to her baby during the birthing process.
Genital Herpes Symptoms
Most people who contract genital herpes are unaware of their infection. However, if symptoms of herpes do occur, the first outbreak can be quite severe, usually occurring within two weeks after the transmission. Some early herpes symptoms include:
- small, painful blisters
- painful urination
- abnormal vaginal discharge
- flu-like symptoms, i.e. fever, swollen glands
- muscle aches
People infected with the herpes virus can typically expect to have four or five outbreaks within the first year of infection. These outbreaks are generally marked by:
- cold sore-like skin lesions
- feelings of fatigue or stress, which appear after blisters have healed
- recurrent blisters, which are usually foreshadowed by an itching, tingling or painful feeling in the places originally infected
Often, however, people do not realize they have genital herpes during their first or subsequent outbreaks and mild symptoms can go unnoticed. Nevertheless, even people not experiencing herpes symptoms are infectious.
How is Genital Herpes Diagnosed?
Genital herpes is most easily diagnosed by a medical assessment of the sores when they are visible. A blood test can also be done to detect herpes in the absence of any obvious symptoms, however these tests cannot differentiate between genital herpes and other herpes infections.
How is Genital Herpes Treated?
You may be asking yourself, are there cures for herpes? Although there is no cure for herpes, there are treatments available that can lessen the symptoms and discomfort they can cause. For example, certain drugs such as acyclovir can speed up the healing process and make any herpes symptoms less severe. Acyclovir can be taken in the form of oral medication and cream that can be applied directly to the infected area.
Another drug called famciclovir, may also be used. This medicine is used to treat recurrent genital herpes. When practiced in addition to safer sex practices (such as always using a condom), these drugs can be quite effective in preventing the spread of the disease. However, you should always be in consultation with your doctor about what type of treatment is best for you.
When you are experiencing an outbreak, there are a number of things you can do to prevent unnecessary discomfort as well as the transmission of the disease, such as:
- take aspirin, acetaminophen or ibuprofen for pain
- take baths using lukewarm water
- wear only cotton underwear
- wear loose-fitting clothes
- keep infected area dry and clean
- wash hands after contact with the infected area
- avoid sexual contact until after the sores have healed
Although it is considered safer to have sexual contact once herpes symptoms have subsided, in reality, there is no real "safe" time to have sex. That is why open communication with your sexual partners is a must. Also, always be sure to insist on practicing safer sex, and more specifically, barrier methods such as condoms.