Sexual Health: A Simple Guide to Genital Herpes
Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted disease (STD) that comes from the herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) or type 2 (HSV-2), though most cases are caused by HSV-2. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that there are over 700,000 new cases in the United States each year, and almost one out of every six people aged 14 to 49 have HSV-2 infection. According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, 45 million Americans over the age of 12 are infected. Most infected individuals do not show any symptoms, and the virus can be passed to the partner if the infected person is not showing symptoms.
How do you get Genital Herpes?
Genital herpes is spread through vaginal, anal, or oral sex with an infected partner. An infected person can spread the disease even if he or she does not show symptoms. However, transmission is more common from sexual contact with a partner who has open sores. In most cases, HSV-2 can only be contracted from a person who has a genital HSV-2 infection. A genital HSV-1 infection occurs from oral-to-genital or genital-to-genital contact with an infected person. Herpes can also be passed from a pregnant mother to her child. Around 70% of pregnant mothers who infect their children are asymptomatic.
Remember, most people with a genital herpes infection do not show symptoms and many are not aware that they have the disease. The majority of people who infect others are asymptomatic and unaware they have genital herpes. Proper use of latex male condoms, female polyurethane condoms, and dental dams use can reduce the risk of infection. However, an infection can still occur on an area that is not covered during sexual contact.
Who is most at risk of getting Genital Herpes?
Herpes is far more common among women than in men – of Americans age 14 to 49, around 1 in 5 women are infected with HSV-2 as compared to 1 in 9 men. This gap exists because, as with other sexually transmitted infections, women have a higher chance of contracted the disease. Without the use of antivirals or condoms, the chances of an infected man passing HSV-2 to a woman is almost 10% annually; the chances of an infected woman passing HSV-2 to a man are around 5%.
Other groups with a higher than average rate of infection include:
- People with more sexual partners
- Blacks and Hispanics/latinos
- Homosexual men
- People infected with HIV
What are the symptoms of Genital Herpes for men and women?
Many people infected with genital herpes do not show symptoms. Other times, the symptoms are very mild and are not properly identified. However, when symptoms do arise they typically appear as one or more blisters in the genital area and begin 7-14 days after exposure to the virus. This is typically referred to as an outbreak. When these blisters break open they result in sores that can take up to four weeks to heal. Blisters usually occur where the virus entered the body, which can include:
- In males: penis, inner thigh, buttocks and anus
- In females: labia, clitoris, pubis, vulva, buttocks, anus
Other symptoms of genital herpes infection may include:
- Cracked, red, or raw skin around the genitals
- Tingling, itching, or burning in the genital or anal region
- Pain when urinating over blisters or sores
- Flu-like complaints such as fever, fatigue, swollen glands
These symptoms typically last for 2-3 weeks. After the initial outbreak, the person may experience several outbreaks over the next year. As time goes on, the number of outbreaks per year generally lessens. There is no medical consensus on what causes outbreaks, but some believe symptoms can return when the infected person is sick or experiencing stress and during a woman’s period. During this time, the body’s immune system is weaker and less capable of keeping the virus inactive. The recurring outbreaks are generally not as severe as the initial one.
Who should be tested for Genital Herpes?
Anyone displaying the symptoms or has a sexual partner with herpes symptoms should be tested by a doctor. During an outbreak, the virus can be identified by a visual inspection or a swab test of the sore(s). If the person is not currently showing symptoms he or she can be diagnosed with a blood test. Talk to your health care provider about the testing options available to you.
Can Genital Herpes be cured?
There is no cure for herpes, but there are ways to treat the symptoms, reducing the severity of outbreaks or preventing them from occurring. People infected with herpes can take antiviral medications to help lessen the duration of an outbreak. The medication may also be effective in reducing the risk of spreading the disease to sexual partners. Things can be done at home to treat the symptoms during an outbreak. These treatments include:
- Wear loose clothing to allow air circulation around sores
- Take over the counter painkillers like acetaminophen or aspirin
- Bathe areas where sores are in a warm salt-water solution
- Wrap the infected area with an ice pack
- Rest and relax
What happens if Genital Herpes is left untreated?
In general, genital herpes does not cause other complications in healthy adults. However, the disease can take a mental and emotional toll on an infected person. Many worry about how the disease will affect their health and personal relationships and suffer from increased anxiety and stress levels. It is important to remember that, if properly treated, genital herpes can be managed. Consult with your health care provider for more information about how to address your concerns. For more advice on living with genital herpes, read this informative guide created by WedMD.
The most common physical complication occurs when an infected person spreads herpes from the infected area of the body to new areas by touching sores and then another body area without washing his or her hands in between. It is important to avoid touching sores or the fluids from these sores; if you do happen to touch a herpes sore wash your hands immediately and thoroughly. Individuals infected with genital herpes are at greater risk to contract HIV if they have open sores.
Pregnant women may pass the virus to their children during childbirth if they are in the midst of an outbreak. In this circumstance a cesarean section is the safest option. Genital herpes can also cause miscarriages and premature birth. If you are pregnant and have any reason to believe you may have herpes, inform your health care provider immediately.