Genital Herpes

Written by Brindles Lee | Published on August 7, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD

What Is Genital Herpes?

Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted infection (STI). This STD causes herpes sores, which are painful blisters (fluid-filled bumps) that can break open and ooze fluid. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 16 percent of people between the ages of 14 and 49 have this STI. (CDC)

Causes of Genital Herpes

Two types of viruses cause genital herpes: the herpes simplex virus (HSV-1) and herpes simplex virus (HSV-2).

The viruses enter your skin or mucous membranes (the thin layers of tissue lining openings in your body) and incorporate themselves into your cells. Viruses tend to multiply or adapt to their environments very easily, which makes treating them difficult.

When you are infected, HSV-1 and HSV-2 can be found in your body fluids such as saliva, semen (in men), and vaginal secretions (in women).

Recognizing the Symptoms of Genital Herpes

If you get genital herpes, the first outbreak (when you see blisters) may appear within 30 days of contracting the disease, or in as early as two days. The symptoms can also last for one to two weeks.

General symptoms for males include blisters on the penis, scrotum, or buttocks (near or around the anus)

General symptoms for females include blisters around or near the vagina, anus, and buttocks

General symptoms for both males and females include the following:

  • Blisters may appear in your mouth and on your lips, face, and anywhere else that came into contact with the infected areas.
  • The infected site often starts to itch before the actual appearance of blisters.
  • 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 (received through a vaginal delivery) may include ulcers on the face, body, and genitals. The herpes virus may spread to other sites in the body such as the liver and the brain.

Diagnosing Genital Herpes

Genital herpes may be diagnosed when they become active (during outbreaks). A physician may order cultures (blood, tissue, and fluid samples) of the sores and send them to a laboratory for examination. Your doctor can typically diagnose a herpes infection by a visual examination of the herpes sores. Although they are not always necessary, your doctor may confirm his or her diagnosis through a laboratory test.

If you experience an outbreak during pregnancy, your doctor may take samples as well. Generally, the first outbreak is the best time to be diagnosed.

Blood tests may help diagnose the herpes simplex virus before it becomes active or if you never experienced outbreaks.

How Can Genital Herpes Be Treated?

Treatment can reduce the outbreaks, but it cannot destroy herpes simplex viruses.

Medications

Antiviral drugs may help decrease 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 reduce the symptoms.

Home Care

Use mild cleansers when bathing or showering in warm water. Also, keep the infected site clean and dry. Wear loose, cotton clothing to keep the area comfortable.

The Long-Term: Can Genital Herpes Be Cured?

There is no cure for genital herpes but the condition can be managed with medication. The disease does not go away. Instead, it tends to lie dormant within your body until something triggers an outbreak. Genital herpes may produce outbreaks when you become stressed, sick, or tired.

I Just Found Out I'm Pregnant. Will Genital Herpes Affect My Baby?

It is normal to be concerned about the health of your baby when you have any type of STD. If you experience an outbreak during delivery, genital herpes may spread to your baby. It is important to tell your doctor early in your pregnancy if you have a history of outbreaks. Your doctor will discuss what to expect before, during, and after you deliver your baby. Generally, your physician will prescribe safe treatments (medications) during your pregnancy to ensure a healthy delivery. He may also opt to deliver your baby through a Caesarian section (C-section).

Prevention: How Can I Protect Myself from Genital Herpes?

Wearing condoms and practicing safe sex can help prevent the spread of genital herpes.

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