Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted infection and is also known as a sexually transmitted disease. It is caused by the viruses, herpes simplex type 1 and 2, but most cases of genital herpes are caused by herpes simplex type 2.
The majority of people who have genital herpes display very mild symptoms or no symptoms at all. When symptoms are present they usually include blisters in the area of the genitals and around the rectum. The blisters can become sore when they burst and they normally take around 4 weeks to heal. In some cases, the blisters may return weeks or even months later.
It is possible for the viral infection to remain within the body indefinitely, but the outbreak numbers tend to decrease over the course of time. The infection can be passed to other people even when the affected individual does not have any symptoms.
Contracting genital herpes
Genital herpes is passed through intimate sexual contact; the virus is passed on from one person to the next and symptoms may or may not develop shortly after. It is possible to spread the virus even if you do not have symptoms, but herpes is at its most infectious when an individual has open blisters. If you are diagnosed with genital herpes you should avoid sexual activities of any kind, especially if you have open sores. Using condoms can help to reduce the risk of passing on the infection, but this is not always the case. A drug called valacyclovir used to treat genital herpes can also help to reduce the risk of infection.
Herpes simplex type 1 generally causes blisters around the mouth and rarely results in genital herpes.
Symptoms and signs of genital herpes
The signs of genital herpes differ and some people do not experience any symptoms. Others can have severe blisters which are sore and red. In most cases, symptoms develop within 2 weeks of sexual contact with a person who has the infection and last around 2-3 weeks. Early signs of genital herpes include:
- Itching or burning sensation in the genital region
- Symptoms similar to flu, such as fever, a sore throat and generally feeling unwell
- Inflamed glands
- Vaginal discharge
- Pain in the genital region, buttocks and legs
- Feeling increased pressure in the abdomen just below the stomach
After a few days lesions (also known as blisters) tend to develop in the genital area and around the rectum, and blisters can also form around the mouth. Sores may also appear around the woman's cervix and the man's urinary passage. The blisters usually develop from tiny bumps to painful open sores, which heal over time and should not cause scarring.
Developed signs of genital herpes include:
- Small red bumps at the site of infection (the vagina, penis or mouth)
- Itchiness in the genital region
- A burning sensation in the genital region
- Muscle aches
- Pain during urination
- Swollen glands within the genital region
- Abdominal discomfort
- Vaginal discharge
In some cases, no symptoms are present but this does not mean the infection cannot be spread. The early blisters are sometimes mistaken for insect bites. Those who suffer with HIV usually find genital herpes infections worse.
If you have genital herpes it is advisable to avoid sexual activity until you have received treatment for the infection. You can pass the infection on even if you do not suffer any symptoms.
Reactivated genital herpes
It is possible for genital herpes to return as the virus can stay in your body for a long period of time. The virus will become active sporadically, but the outbreaks tend to become less frequent over the course of time. Scientists do not fully understand what reactivates the virus but some believe stress and illness trigger the virus.
Knowing you have contracted genital herpes
Doctors are usually able to make a diagnosis of genital herpes by carrying out a physical examination and taking a sample of the sore to be analysed under a microscope. It can be complicated to diagnose genital herpes if symptoms are not present, but blood tests can be used to detect the presence of the herpes simplex viruses.
Treatment for genital herpes
Genital herpes has no cure but medication can ease or prevent symptoms such as acyclovir and valacyclovir. The virus will remain in the body but this does not mean you will experience symptoms all the time. Often, the virus remains inactive for long periods of time and outbreaks are sporadic. Symptoms develop when the virus reactivates but many people have outbreaks rarely. Using condoms in tandem with valacyclovir can help to reduce the risk of passing the infection to others. Your doctor will explain the treatment options and decide which is most suitable for your individual case.
During an outbreak there are ways to ease symptoms and speed up the healing process, including:
- Keep the affected area dry and clean
- Avoid touching the blisters
- Wash your hands after contact with the affected area
- Avoid sexual contact until the blisters have healed
No cure for genital herpes
There is no cure for genital herpes. Once the virus has infected your body it will remain there, but outbreaks of symptoms are usually infrequent and medicines can be used to ease and prevent symptoms.
Genital herpes and pregnancy
It is possible for genital herpes to lead to difficulties during pregnancy, especially if a mother is experiencing her first outbreak of symptoms. If this is the case the risk of transmitting the virus to the unborn baby is higher. If a mother has already had an outbreak of symptoms the risk of spreading the virus to the baby is extremely low. Babies with the herpes virus at birth are at risk of eye problems, brain damage and severe skin rashes, and it is also possible for herpes to cause premature birth and even death.
If a mother has the herpes virus doctors may recommend a caesarean section to prevent the baby from travelling down the birth canal where blisters may be present. Acyclovir can also be given to babies shortly after birth.
It is not known whether drugs for genital herpes are safe for pregnant women and some doctors advise pregnant women against taking acyclovir. If you suffer with genital herpes you should inform your doctor and they will ensure this is taken into account during your antenatal care.
Breastfeeding and genital herpes
If you suffer with genital herpes and you are planning to breastfeed, this should not be a problem as long as the blisters are covered. The virus can only be passed on through contact with the sores and this may be serious for newborn babies. If you carry sores on your breasts you should halt breastfeeding. If you have any doubts discuss them with your doctor or midwife. If you want to continue breastfeeding once the sores have completely healed, try expressing milk and bottle feeding your baby while the sores heal. If the pump comes into contact with the sores make sure you throw away the milk and wash the breast pump thoroughly.
Preventing genital herpes
There are steps you can take to prevent genital herpes, including:
- Avoid sexual activity: this is the only means of ensuring that you do not come into contact with a sexually transmitted infection
- Use condoms: condoms are the only form of contraceptive that protects against sexually transmitted infections, as well as unwanted pregnancies. Experts recommend using condoms for vaginal, anal and oral sex. If you want to stop using condoms and you are in a committed relationship, ensure that you and your partner are free from STIs by having sexual health tests.
- Be faithful: the lower the number of sexual partners you have the lower the risk of sexually transmitted infections
What to do if I have genital herpes
If you suffer with genital herpes it is important to:
- See your doctor to get treatment as quickly as possible
- Follow your doctor's instructions and ensure you finish courses of medication and stick to recommended doses
- Avoid sexual activity of any kind while receiving treatment
- Be honest with your previous sexual partners and inform them that you have genital herpes so they can get tested
- Be aware that the condition is lifelong; consult your doctor about reducing the frequency of outbreaks and passing the infection on to other people