What are genital herpes?
Genital herpes is a common and highly contagious sexually transmitted infection (STI).
It is caused by the herpes simplex virus, the same type of virus that causes cold sores. The virus is spread through direct skin-to-skin contact and can be transmitted during vaginal, oral or anal sexual contact. While some infected people have no symptoms, it can cause repeated outbreaks of blisters on the skin of your genitals. Once infected, the virus remains in your body forever, although there are medicines available to help prevent future outbreaks.
Many people with genital herpes don’t even know they have it. This very common STI affects about one in eight people – although, for many, there are no symptoms.
The virus is typically passed from one person to another during sexual intercourse. Yet because the symptoms often don’t appear immediately – and some people aren’t aware they carry the virus – it can be difficult to trace.
It is not necessary to have visible blisters to spread the infection – virus can even be present on normal intact skin.
Once you have genital herpes, you have it for life. That said, the blisters may only appear sporadically, and an outbreak will only affect the skin for a week or so before disappearing again. Outbreaks can occur any time but are more common if you are run down, menstruating, or ill.
But if you do have genital herpes, it is important that you take every precaution not to pass the virus on to anyone else by practicing safe sex with all partners – and, ideally, letting any new partners know of your condition.
While there is no cure, there are medications and other treatments to both relieve the symptoms and reduce the frequency of blisters appearing.
If you are pregnant and know or suspect that you have genital herpes, it is important to tell your doctor as the virus is a very serious condition in infants and can be passed to your baby before or after birth.
Symptoms of genital herpes
Your first attack of genital herpes is most likely to produce symptoms. Some of these symptoms may include:
- Flu-like symptoms
- Tingling or burning in the genitals
- Aching in the genital area
- Small red lumps that turn to blisters on your genitals
The blisters usually turn into painful sores, which should heal within two weeks.
Later outbreaks of genital herpes are generally not as severe as the first. The length, frequency and severity of outbreaks changes from person to person.
Causes of genital herpes
Genital herpes is commonly caused by the herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2). It is passed from one person to another via skin-to-skin contact – typically through vaginal, anal or oral sex.
The HSV-1 virus usually causes cold sores in or around the mouth. However it can also cause genital herpes when spread to the genital area during oral sex.
Treatment of genital herpes
While there is no cure for genital herpes, treatments are available to reduce discomfort and lower the frequency of subsequent outbreaks of blisters.
Your doctor may prescribe antiviral medications to reduce the severity of a current outbreak; or to prevent recurring outbreaks. For the latter, you may need to take the medication on a daily basis.
As well as prescribed medications, you can treat outbreaks of blisters and sores with:
- Salt baths
- Ice packs
As part of your treatment, it is important to take responsibility for preventing the spread of genital herpes to other people. Always use barrier protection during sex, and be clear about your condition with new sexual partners.
Further information and sources