Genital herpes is caused by the herpes simplex virus (abbreviated as HSV). It is very common--about 1 in 4 women and 1 in 8 men have genital herpes. There are two types of the virus:
The symptoms of genital herpes vary greatly from person to person. Many people do not know that they have it.
For some people, initial or primary infection occurs two to ten days after exposure. Lesions start as sensitive or itchy areas that develop into blisters, then break open to form painful, shallow ulcers, and finally heal by scabbing and drying. In women, the sores appear around the vagina, labia, rectum, and occasionally the groin and inner thigh. Often an increase in vaginal discharge is noted. In men, lesions can be on the penis, scrotum, rectum, buttocks, or inner thighs.
During the first or primary episode, people may experience fever, headache, body aches, enlarged lymph glands in the groin area, and painful urination. Generally, the first episode is more severe than later outbreaks, and sores may take two to three weeks to heal.
Some people have minor symptoms such as itching, slight burning or discharge and do not recognize these as signs of herpes. Others have no symptoms at all.
Regardless of whether a person has symptoms or not, they are able to transmit the virus to sexual partners. If you have tested positive for herpes, you should inform you partner(s) of your diagnosis, and that there is a small risk of transmission even when sores or other symptoms are not present.
Many people have recurring outbreaks of genital herpes throughout their lives, although these are typically less severe than their first outbreak. Current literature suggests that 30-70% of people with genital herpes will experience at least one recurrence. Outbreaks may occur as seldom as once a year, or as often as twice a month.
Signals of an outbreak may be the onset of a tingling sensation or hypersensitivity of the skin in the thigh or buttock area a day or two before the sores/blisters appear. Some people feel herpes outbreaks recur when they are especially fatigued and "run down."
The herpes virus enters through a cut or break in the skin during skin-to-skin contact or is easily absorbed by the thinner skin or mucous membranes of the genitals or mouth. No matter the biological sex of your partners, you may be at risk for genital herpes.
Although it is theoretically possible to get herpes from inanimate objects (towels, underwear, etc. used by someone who has herpes), it is very unlikely.
You'll need to schedule an appointment with Hall Health or another medical provider. At your appointment, you'll be asked about your symptoms and your provider will do a genital examination. If the typical blisters or ulcers are found during this examination, the diagnosis can be made. If the sores found are not typical, a blood test for herpes may be done, or your doctor may take a sample of fluid from the blisters for testing.
The most common blood test for herpes, the Western Blot, looks for the presence of antibodies--special proteins your body produces to fight infection. Since your body may not produce enough antibodies to be detectable for up to three months, your health care provider may recommend waiting before being tested.
To date, there is no medical treatment or medication that will cure genital herpes. There are, however, antiviral medications that can shorten the time you have symptoms and, in some cases, make it less likely for you to spread the virus to others.
Acyclovir (Zovirax), valacyclovir (Valtrex), and famciclovir (Famvir) are the three drugs now being used to reduce the intensity and duration of symptoms. As with any medication, there may be mild side effects which you should discuss with your primary care provider. For people with frequent episodes of symptoms, these drugs may also be prescribed to be taken as a preventive measure to suppress outbreaks.
Although genital herpes itself usually does not cause major complications, it can cause problems if precautions are not taken.
Herpes Resource Center, 9am to 6pm Eastern Time, (919) 361-8488
The American Sexual Health Association's Herpes Resource Center
Hall Health's article on how to tell your partner you have an STD
Authored by: Hall Health Center Women's Health Clinic staff
Reviewed by: Hall Health Center Women's Health Clinic staff, January 2014