What is genital herpes?
Genital herpes is one of the most common sexually transmitted infections (STIs). The infection can be bothersome. But if you are a healthy adult, you do not need to worry that it will cause serious problems for you.
Most people never have symptoms, or the symptoms are so mild that people do not know that they are infected. But in some people, the infection causes occasional outbreaks of itchy and painful sores in the genital area.
After the first outbreak, the herpes virus stays in the nerve cells below the skin and becomes inactive. It usually becomes active again from time to time, traveling back up to the skin and causing more sores. Things like stress, illness, a new sex partner, or menstruation may trigger a new outbreak. As time goes on, the outbreaks happen less often, heal faster, and don't hurt as much.
What causes genital herpes?
Genital herpes is caused by a virus—either the herpes simplex virus type 1 or the herpes simplex virus type 2. Either virus can cause sores on the lips (cold sores) and sores on the genitals. Type 1 more often causes cold sores, while type 2 more often causes genital sores.
What are the symptoms?
Symptoms can vary greatly from person to person. Most people never have any symptoms. Sometimes the symptoms are so mild that people may not notice them or recognize them as a sign of herpes. For people who do notice their first infection, it generally appears about 2 to 14 days after they were exposed to genital herpes.
Some people have outbreaks of itchy and painful blisters on the penis or around the opening of the vagina. The blisters rupture and turn into oozing shallow sores that take up to 3 weeks to heal. Sometimes people, especially women, also have flu-like symptoms, such as fever, headache, and muscle aches. They may also notice an abnormal discharge and pain when they urinate.
How is genital herpes diagnosed?
Your doctor may diagnose genital herpes by examining you. He or she may ask you questions about your symptoms and your risk factors, which are things that make you more likely to get a disease.
If this is your first outbreak, your doctor may take a sample of tissue from the sore for testing. Testing can help the doctor be sure that you have herpes. You may also have a blood test.
How is it treated?
Although there is no cure, medicine can relieve pain and itching and help sores heal faster. If you have a lot of outbreaks, you may take medicine every day to keep the number of outbreaks down.
After the first outbreak, some people have just a few more outbreaks over their lifetime, while others may have 4 to 6 outbreaks a year. Usually the number of outbreaks decreases after a few years.
Treatment works best if it is started as soon as possible after the start of an outbreak. This is especially true for outbreaks that come back again and again.
Finding out that you have herpes may cause you to feel bad about yourself or about sex. Counseling or a support group may help you feel better.
Can genital herpes be prevented?
The only sure way to keep from getting genital herpes—or any other sexually transmitted infection (STI)—is to not have sex. If you do have sex, practice safe sex.
Taking medicine for herpes may lower the number of outbreaks you have and lower the chances that you will infect your partner.
If you are pregnant, you should take extra care to avoid getting infected. You could pass the infection to your baby during delivery, which can cause serious problems for your newborn. If you have an outbreak near your due date, you probably will need to have your baby by cesarean section. If your genital herpes outbreaks return again and again, your doctor may talk to you about medicines that can help prevent an outbreak during pregnancy.
Vaccines that can prevent a genital herpes infection are not available yet. But several are being studied.
Frequently Asked Questions
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