What is Genital Herpes?
Genital herpes is a commonly known sexually transmitted infection caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). Sexual contact is the primary method that the virus spreads. After the initial infection, the virus lies dormant in your body and could reactivate several times a year.
Genital herpes could cause pain, itching, and sores in your genital area. But you may not have any signs or symptoms of genital herpes. If infected, you could be contagious even if you have no visible sores.
There is no cure for genital herpes, but medications could ease symptoms and reduce the risk of infecting others. Condoms also could help prevent the spread of genital herpes infection.
Most people infected with HSV do not know they have it because they do not have any signs or symptoms or because their signs and symptoms are so mild.
When present, symptoms may begin about two to twelve days after exposure to the virus. If you experience symptoms of genital herpes, they might include:
- Pain or itching - You might experience pain and tenderness in your genital area until the infection clears.
- Small red bumps or tiny white blisters - These might appear a few days to a few weeks after infection.
- Ulcers - These might form when blisters rupture and ooze or bleed. Ulcers might make it painful to urinate.
- Scabs - Skin will crust over and form scabs as ulcers cure.
During an initial outbreak, you may have flu-like signs and symptoms like swollen lymph nodes in your groin, headache, muscle aches, and fever.
Differences in symptom location
Sores appear where the infection has entered your body. You could spread the infection by touching a sore and then rubbing or scratching another area of your body, including your eyes.
Men and women could develop sores on the:
- Buttocks and thighs
- Urethra (the tube that enables urine to drain from the bladder to the outside)
Women could also develop sores in or on the:
- Vaginal area
- External genitals
Men could also develop sores in or on the:
Recurrences are common
Genital herpes is different for every person. The signs and symptoms might recur, off and on, for years. Some people experience numerous episodes every year. For many people, although, the outbreaks are less frequent as time passes.
During a recurrence, shortly before sores appear, you might feel:
- Burning, tingling, and itching where the infection has entered your body
- Pain in your lower back, buttocks, and legs
However, recurrences are usually less painful than the original outbreak, and sores generally heal more quickly.
When should you see a doctor?
If you suspect you have genital herpes — or any other sexually transmitted infection — consult your doctor.
Two types of herpes simplex virus infections could cause genital herpes:
- HSV-1 - This is the type that typically causes cold sores or fever blisters around your mouth. HSV-1 is often spread through skin-to-skin contact, though it could be spread to your genital area during oral sex. Recurrences are much less common than they are with HSV-2 infection.
- HSV-2 - This is the type that frequently causes genital herpes. The virus spreads via sexual contact and skin-to-skin contact. HSV-2 is very frequent and highly contagious, whether or not you have an open sore.
Because the virus dies rapidly outside of the body, it is nearly impossible to get the infection through contact with toilets, towels, or other objects used by an infected person.
Your risk of becoming infected with genital herpes might increase if you:
- Are a woman - Women are more likely to suffer from genital herpes than men. The virus is spread sexually more easily from men to women than from women to men.
- Have multiple sexual partners - Each additional sexual partner increases your risk of being exposed to the virus that causes genital herpes.
Complications associated with genital herpes might include:
- Other sexually transmitted infections - Having genital sores raises your risk of transmitting or contracting other sexually transmitted infections, including AIDS.
- Newborn infection - Babies born to infected mothers could be exposed to the virus during the birthing process. This might result in brain damage, blindness, or death for the newborn.
- Bladder problems - In some cases, the sores associated with genital herpes could cause inflammation around the tube that delivers urine from your bladder to the outside world (urethra). The swelling could close the urethra for several days, requiring the insertion of a catheter to drain your bladder.
- Meningitis - In rare instances, HSV infection results in inflammation of the membranes and cerebrospinal fluid surrounding your brain and spinal cord.
- Rectal inflammation (proctitis) - Genital herpes could lead to inflammation of the lining of the rectum, particularly in men who have sex with men.
The suggestions for preventing genital herpes are similar to those for preventing other sexually transmitted infections: Avoid sexual activity or limit sexual contact to only one person who is infection-free. Short of that, you could:
- Use, or let your partner use, a latex condom with each sexual contact
- Abstain intercourse if either partner has an outbreak of herpes in the genital area or anywhere else
If you are pregnant and know you have genital herpes, tell your doctor. If you think you may have genital herpes, ask to be tested for it.
Your doctor might recommend that you start taking herpes antiviral medications late in pregnancy to try to prevent an outbreak around the time of delivery. If you are having an outbreak when you go into labor, your doctor will likely suggest a cesarean section to reduce the risk of passing the virus to your baby.
Your doctor usually can diagnose genital herpes based on a physical examination and the results of certain laboratory tests:
- Viral culture - This test includes taking a tissue sample or scraping the sores for examination in the laboratory.
- Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test - PCR is used to copy your DNA from a specimen of your blood, or tissue from a sore or spinal fluid. The DNA could then be tested to establish the presence of HSV and determine which type of HSV you have.
- Blood test - This test analyzes a specimen of your blood for the presence of HSV antibodies to detect past herpes infection.
There is no cure for genital herpes. Treatment with prescription antiviral medications might:
- Help sores cure sooner during an initial outbreak
- Reduce the severity and duration of symptoms when recurrent outbreaks occur
- Reduce the frequency of recurrence
- Minimize the risk of transmitting the herpes virus to another
Antiviral medications used for genital herpes are:
- Acyclovir (Zovirax)
- Valacyclovir (Valtrex)
Your doctor might recommend that you take the medicine only when you have symptoms of an outbreak or that you take a certain medication daily, even when you have no signs of an outbreak. These medications are generally well-tolerated and have few adverse effects.
If you or anyone you know is suffering from genital herpes, our expert providers at Vegas Health will take care of your health and help you recover.
Call (702)-551-5212 to book an appointment with our specialists.