Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted viral infection affecting the skin or mucous membranes of the genitals.
Genital herpes is caused by two viruses:
Herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2) causes most cases of genital herpes. HSV-2 can be spread through secretions from the mouth or genitals.
Herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) most often causes herpes infections of the mouth and lips (commonly called cold sores or fever blisters). HSV-1 can spread from the mouth to the genitals during oral sex.
Herpes simplex virus (HSV) is spread from one person to another during sexual contact. You may be infected with herpes when your skin, vagina, penis, or mouth comes into contact with someone who already has herpes.
Herpes is most likely to be transmitted by contact with the skin of an infected person who has visible sores, blisters, or a rash (an active outbreak), but you can also catch herpes from an infected person's skin when they have NO visible sores present (and the person may not even know that he or she is infected), or from an infected persons mouth (saliva) or vaginal fluids.
Because the virus can be spread even when there are no symptoms or sores present, a sexual partner who has been infected with herpes in the past but has no active herpes sores can still pass the infection on to others.
Genital HSV-2 infections is more common in women (approximately 1 of every 4 women is infected) than it is in men (nearly 1 of every 8 men is infected).
Many people with HSV-2 infection never have sores, or they have very mild symptoms that they do not even notice or mistake for insect bites or another skin condition.
If signs and symptoms do occur during the first outbreak, they can be quite severe. This first outbreak usually happens within 2 weeks of being infected.
Generalized or whole-body (systemic) symptoms may include:
Genital symptoms include the appearance of small, painful blisters filled with clear or straw-colored fluid. They are usually found:
Other symptoms that may occur include:
A second outbreak can appear weeks or months after the first. It is almost always less severe and shorter than the first outbreak. Over time, the number of outbreaks tends to decrease.
Once a person is infected, however, the virus hides within nerve cells and remains in the body. The virus can remain "asleep" (dormant) for a long period of time (this is called latency).
The infection can flare-up or reactivate at any time. Events that can trigger latent infection to become active and bring on an outbreak include:
Attacks can recur as seldom as once per year, or so often that the symptoms seem continuous. Recurrent infections in men are generally milder and shorter than those in women.
Tests can be done on skin sores or blisters to diagnose herpes. These tests are most often done when someone has a first outbreak and when a pregnant women develops genital herpes symptoms.
Genital herpes cannot be cured. However, antiviral medication can relieve pain and discomfort during an outbreak by healing the sores more quickly. These drugs appear to help during first attacks more than they do in later outbreaks. Medicines used to treat herpes include acyclovir, famciclovir, and valacyclovir.
For repeat outbreaks, start the medication as soon as the tingling, burning, or itching begins, or as soon as you notice blisters.
People who have many outbreaks may take these medications daily over a period of time. This can help prevent outbreaks or shorten their length. It can also reduce the chance of giving herpes to someone else.
Pregnant women may be treated for herpes during the last month of pregnancy to reduce the chance of having an outbreak at the time of delivery. If there is an outbreak around the time of delivery, a C-section will be recommended to reduce the chance of infecting the baby.
Possible side effects from herpes medications include:
Home care for herpes sores:
If one of the sores develops an infection from bacteria, ask your doctor if you need an antibiotic.
See: Herpes genital - support group
Once you are infected, the virus stays in your body for the rest of your life. Some people never have another episode, and others have frequent outbreaks.
In most outbreaks, there is no obvious trigger. Many people, however, find that attacks of genital herpes occur with the following conditions:
In people with a normal immune system, genital herpes remains a localized and bothersome infection, but is rarely life-threatening.
Pregnant women who have an active herpes infection on their genitals or in their birth canal when they deliver may pass the infection to their newborn infant.
Some peole may develop severe herpes infections that involve the brain, eyes, esophagus, livere, spinal cord, or lungs. These complications often develop in people who have a weakened immune system, AIDS, are undergoing chemotherapy or radiation therapy, or who take high doses of cortisone.
Someone with an active herpes infection who has sexual contact with someone who is HIV positive is more likely to contract HIV infection themselves.
Call for an appointment with your health care provider if you have any symptoms of genital herpes, or if you develop fever, headache, vomiting, or widespread symptoms during or after an outbreak of herpes. Also call if you are unable to urinate.
The best way to avoid getting genital herpes is to avoid all sexual contact, including oral sex. Next best is being in a long-term, mutually monogamous relationshipw with someone who has been tested and is not, and never has been, infected with herpes.
Condoms remain the best way to protect against catching genital herpes during sexual activity with someone who is infected. Using a condom correctly and consistently will help prevent the spread of the disease.
In addition, people with genital herpes who don't have any current symptoms should tell their partner that they have the disease.
Vaccines against herpes have been developed but are still experimental.
Herpes - genital; Herpes simplex - genital; Herpesvirus 2; HSV-2