Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted infection that’s caused by one of two viruses — herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) or herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2). This is a very common infection in the United States. It’s important to know how to recognize genital herpes and what you can do to protect both yourself and others from the infection.
Genital Herpes Symptoms
The symptoms of genital herpes are often very mild. Some individuals with this virus have no symptoms at all. Those who do have symptoms generally get a rash around the genitals, rectum, or thighs. This looks like small blisters. These blisters break open leaving painful sores. An active herpes rash can take two to four weeks to completely heal.
The first genital herpes outbreak is usually the worst. During the initial outbreak, the rash may be accompanied by a fever, sore muscles, swollen glands, and other flu-like symptoms. Subsequent outbreaks are usually less severe. Between outbreaks, the virus lies dormant in the nerve mass at the base of the spine. Some people note that outbreaks seem more common when they’re under stress, ill, menstruating, or spending a lot of time in the sun.
Transmission of Genital Herpes
Genital herpes is transmitted through skin-to-skin contact or contact with genital secretions while the virus is active. The virus is always active during an outbreak. However, you can also shed the virus when sores are not present. Occasionally, the herpes virus will reactivate and travel to the skin without causing lesions. It can shed through genital secretions or inapparent lesions at or near the site of the initial infection. Therefore, it is possible to catch genital herpes from someone when they don’t know that they’re spreading it.
Among individuals who have symptomatic HSV-2, shedding occurs on 20.1% of days. Those who have asymptomatic HSV-2 typically experience shedding on 10.2% of days. Shedding is more common and more frequent with genital HSV-2 infections than with genital HSV-1.
Though HSV-2 is most commonly associated with genital herpes, you can also get genital herpes from HSV-1. If someone with oral herpes performs oral sex when the virus is active, the recipient may contract genital herpes. Likewise, you can catch oral herpes from performing oral sex on someone with active genital herpes.
Genital herpes can be spread through vaginal, anal, or oral sex. You can reduce your risk of spreading or catching genital herpes by using a condom during these activities. However, this does not completely eliminate the risk of catching herpes.
You cannot catch genital herpes from a towel, toilet seat, bedding, or swimming pool.
Diagnosing Genital Herpes
Your local healthcare provider may be able to offer a preliminary diagnosis of genital herpes by performing a visual examination of sores. To confirm the diagnosis, your healthcare provider must take a swab from an open sore or perform a blood test to look for herpes antibodies. Genital herpes is not one of the standard tests that’s performed with STI screenings. If you want to be tested for genital herpes it’s important to discuss this virus specifically with your healthcare provider.
Treatment for Genital Herpes
There is no cure for genital herpes. Once you have this infection, it will remain in your body for life. However, antiviral medications, like valacyclovir, can help prevent or shorten herpes outbreaks. These medications may also help prevent transmission of herpes to your partners. If you’ve been previously diagnosed with herpes, Nurx can prescribe genital herpes treatment online and deliver the medication to your door with free shipping.
During an outbreak, you should take precautions to avoid spreading the herpes virus to others and to keep from spreading the virus to other parts of your own body.
- Do not touch the herpes sores.
- Wash your hands frequently, especially after using the restroom or having other contact with the sores.
- Keep the sores clean and dry.
- Avoid sexual contact when any herpes symptoms are present.
Pregnant women who have HSV-1 or HSV-2 should take special care to protect the health of their babies. Antiviral medication may be used at the end of the pregnancy to reduce the risk of an outbreak. This is usually provided from 36 weeks onward. If a woman has an active herpes outbreak during delivery, a cesarean section is typically performed.
Genital Herpes Complications
Though rare, there are some complications associated with genital herpes. These may include:
- Aseptic meningitis (inflammation of the brain lining)
- Extragenital lesions on the buttocks, groin, finger, eye, or thigh
- Newborn infections infants born to mothers with genital herpes
- Bladder problems
- Proctitis (rectal inflammation)
If you have genital herpes, you’re more likely to contract other STIs. Talk to your healthcare provider about the proper way to protect yourself from these potential complications.
Genital Herpes vs. Genital Warts
Genital herpes and genital warts are similar in appearance, so one is often confused for the other. However, these are two different STIs. Genital herpes is caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV) while genital warts are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). Both are spread through skin-to-skin contact and have no cure, though you can get vaccinated against the most common strains of HPV.
Genital Herpes Facts
Genital herpes is very common. Though this diagnosis can seem frightening, it’s important to understand that those with genital herpes are not alone. The virus is very manageable and rarely presents serious complications.
- Nationally, an estimated 776,000 people contract a new genital herpes infection each year.
- In the United States, 11.9% of people age 14 to 49 have HSV-2.
- HSV-2 is more common in women than in men.
- It’s easier for a woman to contract genital herpes from a man than it is for a man to contract the virus from a woman.
- An estimated 87.4% of people between the ages of 14 and 49 with HSV-2 have never received a clinical diagnosis. This is likely because the symptoms are subtle and doctors do not routinely test for herpes with other STDs.
Understanding genital herpes can help you better protect yourself and your partner. If you have this virus, know that it is manageable. Talk to your local healthcare provider about the best way to take care of your health if you have genital herpes.