What is genital herpes?
Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted infection (STI). This STI causes herpetic sores, which are painful blisters (fluid-filled bumps) that can break open and ooze fluid.
About 16 percent of people between the ages of 14 and 49 years old have this condition.
Causes of genital herpes
Two types of herpes simplex virus cause genital herpes:
- HSV-1, which usually causes cold sores
- HSV-2, which usually causes genital herpes
The viruses enter into the body through mucous membranes. The mucous membranes are the thin layers of tissue that line the openings of your body.
They can be found in your nose, mouth, and genitals.
Once the viruses are inside, they incorporate themselves into your cells and then stay in the nerve cells of your pelvis. Viruses tend to multiply or adapt to their environments very easily, which makes treating them difficult.
HSV-1 or HSV-2 can be found in people’s bodily fluids, including:
- vaginal secretions
Recognizing the symptoms of genital herpes
The appearance of blisters is known as an outbreak. A first outbreak will appear as early as 2 days after contracting the virus or as late as 30 days afterward.
General symptoms for those with a penis include blisters on the:
- buttocks (near or around the anus)
General symptoms for those with a vagina include blisters around or near the:
General symptoms for anyone include the following:
- Blisters may appear in the mouth and on the lips, face, and anywhere else that came into contact with areas of infection.
- The area that has contracted the condition often starts to itch, or tingle, before blisters actually appear.
- The blisters may become ulcerated (open sores) and ooze fluid.
- A crust may appear over the sores within a week of the outbreak.
- Your lymph glands may become swollen. Lymph glands fight infection and inflammation in the body.
- You may have headaches, body aches, and fever.
General symptoms for a baby born with herpes (contracted through a vaginal delivery) may include ulcers on the face, body, and genitals.
Babies who are born with genital herpes can develop very severe complications and experience:
- brain damage
It’s very important that you tell your doctor if you contract genital herpes and are pregnant.
They will take precautions to prevent the virus from being transmitted to your baby during delivery, with one likely method being that your baby would be delivered via cesarean rather than a routine vaginal delivery.
Diagnosing genital herpes
Your healthcare provider can typically diagnose a herpes transmission by a visual examination of the herpes sores. Although they aren’t always necessary, your doctor may confirm their diagnosis through laboratory tests.
A blood test can diagnose herpes simplex virus before you experience an outbreak.
Make an appointment with a healthcare provider if you think you’ve been exposed to genital herpes, even if you aren’t experiencing any symptoms yet.
How can genital herpes be treated?
Treatment can reduce the outbreaks, but it can’t cure herpes simplex viruses.
Antiviral drugs may help speed up the healing time of your sores and reduce pain. Medications may be taken at the first signs of an outbreak (tingling, itching, and other symptoms) to help reduce the symptoms.
People who have outbreaks may also be prescribed medications to make it less likely that they’ll get outbreaks in the future.
Use mild cleansers when bathing or showering in warm water. Keep the affected site clean and dry. Wear loose cotton clothing to keep the area comfortable.
What should I know if I am pregnant and I have genital herpes?
It’s normal to be concerned about the health of your baby when you have any type of STI. Genital herpes can be transmitted to your baby if you have an active outbreak during a vaginal delivery.
It’s important to tell your doctor that you have genital herpes as soon as you know you’re pregnant.
Your doctor will discuss what to expect before, during, and after you deliver your baby. They can prescribe pregnancy-safe treatments to ensure a healthy delivery. They may also opt to deliver your baby via cesarean.
Genital herpes can also cause pregnancy complications such as miscarriage or premature birth.
Long-term outlook for genital herpes
You should practice safer sex and use condoms or another barrier method every time you have sexual contact with someone. This will help prevent genital herpes cases and the transmission of other STIs.
There’s no current cure for genital herpes, but researchers are working on a future cure or vaccine.
The condition can be managed with medication. The disease stays dormant within your body until something triggers an outbreak.
Outbreaks can happen when you become stressed, sick, or tired. Your doctor will help you come up with a treatment plan that will help you manage your outbreaks.
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- Looker KJ, et al. (2020). The global and regional burden of genital ulcer disease due to herpes simplex virus: a natural history modelling study.