Medically reviewed by The Dermatologists and written by Dr. Alexander Börve
Genital herpes is caused by a contagious virus called herpes simplex. Herpes is a common skin disease that can be categorized into two categories: HSV-1 and HSV-2. Both types of herpes may present with symptoms of blisters or sores in the affected region. HSV-1 and HSV-2 are most commonly associated with outbreaks around mouth and genital area respectively, but either type may be found in either location. HSV-2 can also appear around the anus, on the buttocks and thighs, and thus is generally called genital herpes.
Genital herpes is caused by a contagious virus called herpes simplex and is very common. The disease is very common, about one-third of all adults have at some point been infected by the virus. Many do not know they have genital herpes because the symptoms are often mild and many do not get any symptoms at all. Only 20 percent of infected have obvious symptoms and know they carry the virus.
Genital herpes is transmitted primarily through sexual intercourse or oral sex. Transmission of the virus usually occurs through direct skin-to-skin contact with the sores or secretions, even though transmission is possible even when these external symptoms are not present. The herpes virus is very sensitive and dies quickly outside the body. Therefore, you cannot be infected with genital herpes through contact with toilet seats, bath or towels.
Symptoms of Genital Herpes
The herpes outbreak with symptoms may manifest itself by swelling, tenderness, pain and sometimes itching in the genital area. Transmission through oral sex can lead to herpes outbreak in the throat, which often causes very painful tonsillitis with similar symptoms. Anal intercourse can result in herpes breaks out around the anus.
Herpes blisters (also known as fever blisters or cold sores), appear as one or more blisters in a group around the affected region. The sores are typically inflamed and painful, and over the course of the outbreak, they can leak clear fluid and leave a scab. There is a lot of variability in terms of the duration, appearance, and recurring herpes outbreaks. Some individuals, for instance, are unaware that they have the disease because their symptoms are so minor. Others, however, may have many outbreaks per year. Additional symptoms, most typical during the initial outbreak, may include fever or fatigue.
The herpes virus does not disappear from the body after it has healed, but remains throughout life. It rests in nerve cells next to the spinal cord and may be reactivated, giving new outbreaks of blisters and sores.
What can I do?
The best way to reduce the risk of genital herpes infect is to use a condom during sexual intercourse, because those who are infected often do not know about it. If you have on-going herpes outbreak with blisters, you should completely refrain from having unprotected sex because the risk of infection is greatest then. Taking known antiviral drugs before sexual intercourse with someone who is infected with herpes do not provide 100 percent protection.
Should I seek medical care?
Herpes does not affect the ability to get pregnant, but in connection with childbirth, there is a small risk of transmitting herpes to the newborn child, who can then become very sick. The risk is greatest when you have herpes for the first time. It is important to consult with his doctor if you suspect that you have received a herpes outbreak during late pregnancy.
While it is very rare, you can get bacteria in the wounds that are formed when herpes blisters burst. In addition, an unusual complication can occur the first time you get herpes. You will have a mild meningitis, and then get severe headaches and stiff neck. In both cases, you should contact your healthcare provider.
Treatment for Genital Herpes
At this time there is no known cure for either type of herpes, although there are treatments that suppress symptoms. Antiviral creams containing aciclovir (e.g. Zovirax) may relieve superficial symptoms. In some cases, when symptoms are severe, treatment with prescription antiviral medicine in tablet form may be required. It is not curative, but suppresses the symptoms. In these cases, treatment should start as early as possible after the first signs of disease.
National Disease and Therapeutic Index, IMS Health, Integrated Promotional Services™. IMS Health Report, 1966–2013. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/std/stats14/figures/53.htm
Ask a Dermatologist
Anonymous, fast and secure!