Illnesses & Infections
Updated on 31 May 2023
Genital herpes also known as herpes genitalis is a common sexually transmitted infection caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). It is often transmitted through skin-to-skin contact during sexual activity. Some people despite being infected with the virus may have no or very mild symptoms while others may experience symptoms like itching, swelling or painful blisters.
In this article, we will discuss what is genital herpes, the symptoms of herpes genitalis, its causes, risks, diagnosis, treatment and much more.
Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by the herpes simplex virus. It can cause herpetic sores, which are fluid-filled painful blisters that can tear open and ooze fluid. It can be a painful infection for some while others may not even know they have genital herpes.
Herpes genitalis is caused by two type of the herpes simplex virus (HSV):
Genital herpes caused by HSV-1 usually causes cold sores. However, it may also cause genital herpes.
HSV-2 is generally responsible for causing genital herpes, but it can sometimes also cause cold sores.
The viruses can enter the body through mucous membranes that can be found in your nose, mouth and genitals or skin abrasions. Once the virus is inside the body, it incorporates itself into cells and multiplies easily, making it hard to treat. HSV can be found in saliva, semen and vaginal secretions.
Most people with HSV may not even know they have it as they may have no or very mild symptoms. Symptoms usually begin to show around 2-12 days after exposure. Genital herpes symptoms include:
Itching or pain around the genitals
Small blisters or bumps around the genitals, anus or mouth
Painful ulcers which may form when blisters rupture and ooze fluid
Discharge from the urethra or vagina
It is also common to experience flu-like symptoms during the first outbreak such as headache, body aches, fever and swollen lymph nodes in the groin.
The herpes blisters or sores can develop on or in the buttocks, thighs, rectum, anus, urethra, vulva, vagina, cervix, penis, scrotum or mouth.
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A doctor can typically diagnose genital herpes by a visual examination of the herpes blister. A doctor may also confirm their diagnosis through a laboratory test instead. A blood test can help diagnose HSV before an outbreak occurs. However, if there are no symptoms and there hasn’t been exposure to the virus, it’s not necessary to be screened for HSV.
Unfortunately, there is no cure for genital herpes simplex viruses, but treatment can help reduce the outbreaks. After a diagnosis has been confirmed by the doctor, they will recommend you some medications to help with the symptoms and reduce future outbreaks. Antiviral drugs can help accelerate the healing of sores and reduce pain. Medications taken at the first signs of an outbreak can also help reduce the symptoms.
The risk of genital herpes can increase in certain situations such as:
Having oral, vaginal or anal sex with someone who has genital herpes
Not using condoms or other protection while having sex
Having a compromised immune system due to another illness or STI
Genital herpes can be transmitted through sexual contact, including vaginal or anal sex and any other activity that involves contact between genitals. It is also possible to contract HSV infection through oral sex, which can spread to genital and anal areas. HSV infection is usually transmitted through skin-to-skin contact, however, the virus may also be present in semen, saliva and vaginal secretions.
Sexually active people can prevent or lower their risk of genital herpes by:
Using condoms or other barrier methods every time they have sex
Avoiding having sex with someone who displays symptoms of herpes
Talking to a sexual partner about their STI status
If a person tests positive for genital herpes, they should consult a doctor immediately. Although it cannot be cured, medications can help reduce the symptoms and lower the risk of outbreaks. Frequent and severe outbreaks might be a sign of a compromised immune system. A doctor can help determine the underlying cause for this. It’s recommended to avoid sex if there’s a genital herpes outbreak. To reduce the chances of transmission, use barrier methods such as condoms and dental dams during sexual activity.
Genital herpes, usually, does not always require treatment, however, medications can help reduce the severity of symptoms and the possibility of outbreaks. In some rare cases, herpes can lead to complications but it doesn’t get worse over time.
It’s perfectly normal to be concerned about your baby’s health if you contract genital herpes or any other STI during pregnancy. In case of an active outbreak, HSV can be transmitted to the baby during vaginal delivery. It’s important to discuss with your doctor if you have genital herpes and determine a safe course of treatment. The doctor may also suggest delivering the baby through a C-section to minimse the chances of the baby contracting the HSV.
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