What is Genital Herpes?

Genital herpes is an infection caused by a virus called herpes simplex virus (HSV). It is passed on or transmitted through sexual contact, often called a sexually transmitted infection (STI). After you are infected with herpes, the virus can lay dormant in your body and cause symptoms several times a year. Additionally, even when you do not have symptoms, once infected you can still spread the virus to others, through sexual contact. The herpes simplex virus can affect your immune system and make you more prone to other types of infections. There are two types of herpes virus, known as HSVI and HSVII. It used to be that HSVI was the virus that affected the oral area (cold sores) and HSVII was the virus strain that causes genital herpes. However, it is now known that both viruses can cause symptoms in both the oral and genital area.

Symptoms of Genital Herpes

Symptoms of genital herpes can vary depending on the person, and area of infection. Symptoms usually appear around 12 days after being exposed to the virus - although some people have no symptoms at all, or experience their first symptoms weeks to years after initial infection.

Sores or blisters can develop in the genital area. Ulcers may form from the blisters popping and bleeding, making it painful to urinate. Scabs will usually form once the ulcers begin to heal. There may be itching or pain along with the other symptoms. Many people experience burning pain in the genital area, even before the sores and blisters appear.

Some people also experience swollen lymph nodes in the groin area and flu-like symptoms, such as muscle aches and fever.

Touching or scratching one affected area and then touching another area may infect that new area, like your eyes or mouth (when the herpes virus affects your mouth, it is called a ‘cold sore’). Men and women may develop genital herpes outbreaks in different areas.

Areas of outbreaks may include:

  • Anus
  • Mouth (cold sores)
  • Buttocks
  • Thighs
  • Urethra (the tube you urinate from)
  • Eyes

Women may have outbreaks in the:

  • Internal vaginal area
  • External genital area
  • Cervix

Men may have outbreaks in the:

  • Penis
  • Scrotum

Reoccurrence

Outbreaks and the frequency in which they occur depend on the person. Most people with genital herpes experience an outbreak several times a year. Stress or illness can increase the chances of a flare up. The good news is reoccurrence usually decreases and outbreaks become less frequent over time. And anti-viral treatments provide relief for most people.

Causes of Genital Herpes

There are two different types of herpes simplex virus infections: HSV-1 and HSV-2.

HSV-1: this type of virus is they type that commonly infects the oral area, though it can infect the genital area, as well. It will cause blisters and sores around your mouth. It is spread from person-to-person contact, like kissing. If someone with oral herpes performs oral sex, the infection can spread to the partners genital area, as well..

HSV-2: this virus is most commonly the cause of genital herpes, and transmitted via skin-to-skin contact through sexual intercourse. HSV-2 is a highly contagious virus and can be spread regardless of whether you are showing symptoms or sores.

Diagnosis of Genital Herpes

A doctor can diagnose genital herpes through a physical exam or lab testing. Lab tests may include:

  • Clinical Diagnosis: Diagnosis can be made by your health care provider examining the genital lesions. If in question, additional blood tests or swab of the lesion can be performed, but these are not always necessary.
  • Blood test: This is typically ordered when you have been exposed to someone with HSV or have a history of genital ulcers but you don’t have current symptoms. Your blood will show the presence of HSV antibodies if you have the infection in your body.
  • Viral Culture: This is done through a tissue sample which is taken by scraping or swabbing the area of infection (the blister or ulcer), then the sample is sent off to the lab. This test does not always identify the virus-especially if your lesions are crusted over. To best identify the virus, the swab should be taken with a sample of a fresh ‘open’ ulceration.
  • PCR Test (Polymerase Chain Reaction): DNA is copied from your blood sample, tissue sample, or culture test. The DNA is then screened for the presence of genetic material from the herpes virus to determine which HSV type you have. This test is better at detecting the virus than a virus culture, but lesions should still be open and relatively new when swabbed for most accurate detection.

Treatment of Genital Herpes

There's no cure for genital herpes, but there are some medications that can ease the symptoms and reduce the risk of infecting others from person-to-person contact.

Condoms during sexual intercourse can also help to prevent the spread of the genital herpes infection (HSV-1/2) by about 95%. But the infection has a small risk of spreading even if you use condoms.

Your doctor will prescribe an antiviral medication. There are several types of genital herpes medications. For episodic treatment, they are most effective when taken immediately at the onset of symptoms. For this reason, once diagnosed it is best to have the prescription ‘on-hand’ so that you can take it immediately if you begin to experience an outbreak. All prescription medications are approved by the FDA:

  • Valacyclovir (Valtrex)
  • Acyclovir (Zovirax)
  • Famciclovir (Famvir)

These medications are sometimes used to treat shingles and chickenpox, which are other viral infections.

Some common side effects of these medications include:

  • feeling sad or empty
  • irritability
  • lack of appetite
  • loss of interest or pleasure
  • tiredness
  • trouble concentrating
  • trouble sleeping
  • Headache
  • Diarrhea/stomach pain
  • Nausea

Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should consult their doctor for the best treatment plan and advice for how to avoid passing HSV to their baby.

People who have frequent outbreaks may be given antiviral medications daily as a suppressive therapy plan. These antiviral medications will help to control future outbreaks and reduce the chances of spreading the infection to sexual partners.

FAQs

Can I get genital herpes from toilet seats?

No. Getting herpes from a toilet seat is highly unlikely. Outside the body, the herpes virus has a very short life and dies quickly on surfaces. Herpes is spread through mucus membranes and not likely to spread through contact with a toilet seat - or from objects such as cups and cutlery.

Can I get genital herpes from oral herpes?

Yes. Oral (HSV-1) can be transmitted to the genital areas via oral to genital contact or oral sex. Herpes can be spread through infected saliva, or open sores. A partner can spread herpes even if they don't have visual sores.

Does genital herpes hurt?

Genital herpes can be painful or irritating depending on the severity of the outbreak. The blisters or sores can be painful. However, with treatment, the outbreaks will become less severe and less frequent over time.

How common is genital herpes?

Genital herpes is common worldwide. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), nearly 500 million people between the ages of 15-49 are estimated to have herpes. That's just about one out of every five people in the world. So you could say it is a common virus worldwide. Many of these people have never had outbreaks, though they have been infected with the virus, and can also spread it to others.

Does genital herpes go away?

No. Unfortunately, there is no cure for the herpes virus. Once you get it, you have the virus for life. However, with treatments like antiviral medications, the outbreaks of genital herpes can be controlled and often become less frequent, shorter and less intense over time.

Can you swim if you have genital herpes?

Yes. You cannot spread herpes to other people in a swimming pool. The only way to spread genital herpes is by having vaginal, anal, or oral sex with someone who has the disease. The virus does not live outside the body and cannot spread through surface contact. So, you can swim even if you are suffering from an outbreak of herpes.

Is herpes contagious all the time?

Yes, genital herpes is very easy to pass on when direct physical contact occurs with an infected person. Herpes infections are most contagious when someone is experiencing symptoms. However, the infection can still be spread to others in the absence of symptoms. You can reduce the chances of passing on herpes by taking doctor-prescribed anti-viral medication and avoiding having sex when you are experiencing symptoms. Condoms may also reduce your risk of getting genital herpes, but the infection can be passed on if the condom doesn’t fully cover the affected area.

How long does it take for HSV-2 to show up?

Generally, it can take anywhere from 2 to 12 days to show signs of infection from genital herpes. However, some people may be asymptomatic, or not show signs of the infection. This can easily lead to spreading of the infection to someone else unknowingly. It is also why, if you have had more than 1 sexual partner, and you experience an outbreak for the first time, it can be difficult to tell who gave you the infection. It is most likely from a new partner, if you recently had sex with someone new. However, if not, you may be experiencing your first outbreak from an infection given to you several weeks or even years prior.

The information provided is for educational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Seek the advice of a doctor with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never delay seeking or disregard professional medical advice because of something you have read here.