Genital herpes

Genital herpes is a common sexually transmitted infection (STI) that can cause painful sores on the genital area. There is no vaccine or cure, but antiviral medication can help ease the pain associated with the sores and control recurrent episodes.

Genital herpes can be transmitted during unprotected vaginal, anal, or oral sex, even if the infected person has no visible sores or any other symptoms of infection. It can also be passed from an infected mother to her child during pregnancy or childbirth.

Practicing safer sex can help reduce the risk of getting or transmitting the infection.

Symptoms of genital herpes

Many people who have genital herpes are unaware that they have the virus because they have no symptoms, mild symptoms, or mistake the symptoms for other conditions such as jock itch, yeast infections, razor burn or allergic reactions to detergents. The infection can be diagnosed by taking a swab from the sores or through blood tests. Those with symptoms may experience a tingling sensation or itching in the genital area within a few days of having sex with an infected person. A cluster of blisters may appear and burst, leaving painful sores often lasting two to three weeks. A fever, headache and muscular pain may occur during the first attack.

After the sores from the first attack heal, the virus goes into a dormant stage, but recurrent outbreaks can occur. Some people have only one or two recurrences in a lifetime, while others have them frequently. Recurrences are typically shorter in duration and less severe than the first episode. Stress, menstrual cycle, illness, fever, surgery, exposure to sun, having sex, pregnancy, and the use of some medications can play a role in the frequency and severity of outbreaks. Herpes can continue to be transmitted to others, even between recurrences when the infected person has no symptoms.

Women's symptoms can include:

  • sores inside or near the vagina, the cervix, on the external genitals, near the anus, or on the thighs or buttocks
  • tender lumps in the groin (lymphadenopathy)

Men's symptoms can include:

  • sores on the penis, around the testicles, near the anus, or on the thighs or buttocks
  • tender lumps in the groin (lymphadenopathy)

For both men and women, the sores will usually occur on or near the area where the virus was transmitted.

The health risks of genital herpes

Pain and discomfort are the main health effects of genital herpes, but the virus can also cause emotional and social problems for those infected.  Although it cannot be cured, genital herpes can be managed with antiviral medication that may help control the recurrences. On rare occasions, genital herpes may cause serious complications such as blindness and inflammation of the brain.

Genital herpes can sometimes be passed from an infected mother to her child during pregnancy or birth. The infection can be life-threatening to the child or result in skin lesions or brain damage. Antiviral medication and a cesarean delivery can reduce the risk of infecting the child.

Minimizing your risk

Following these suggestions can help you avoid contracting and transmitting genital herpes:

  • See your doctor as soon as possible if you think you have an STI.
  • Learn about safer sex methods and practice them.
  • Make informed decisions about your sexual health. Talk to your partner(s) about their STI status and the use of protection.
  • Avoid having sex when skin sores are present. This includes not having oral sex when cold sores on or around the mouth are present. Get tested as soon as possible to find out whether you have an STI.
  • Correctly and consistently using a condom during sex reduces the risk of genital herpes and other STIs. However, when using a condom, remember that the exposed areas of skin are still unprotected.
  • To prevent spread of the virus during oral sex, use a condom on the penis and a condom cut lengthwise or a dental dam over the female genital area.
  • If you've had multiple sexual partners, talk with your healthcare professional about getting tested for genital herpes and other STIs.

If you have genital herpes:

  • See your doctor as soon as possible. The doctor can prescribe medication to help ease the pain associated with the sores and control recurrent episodes. Keep the infected area clean and dry.
  • Inform your sex partner(s) of your infection so they are aware of the risk of infection. It may be useful for those partner(s) to get tested to determine if they are infected. Couples where only one partner is infected may benefit from counselling regarding the pros and cons of continuous condom use. Antiviral medication may reduce the risk of spreading the infection to uninfected partner(s).
  • Wear loose fitting clothing made of natural materials such as cotton to help ease symptoms.
  • Do not engage in any sexual activity until the sores have completely healed.
  • Always use a condom when having sex, even if you have no symptoms. While there is a lower risk, you can still pass on the herpes virus without sores.
  • Do not touch your eyes, mouth, or genitals after touching the sores because you can spread the herpes virus to other parts of your own body. Avoid spreading the virus by washing and drying your hands after touching any sores.
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