Genital herpes is a common and highly contagious infection usually spread through sex. This infection is usually caused by the herpes simplex virus-2 (HSV-2) or the herpes simplex virus-1 (HSV-1), the virus usually responsible for cold sores.
Herpes is a common STD and a lot of people who have it don’t even know. There is no cure for herpes, but there is treatment that can lessen symptoms and decrease the likelihood of passing it on to someone else.
Most individuals infected with HSV-1 or HSV-2 experience either no symptoms or have very mild symptoms that go unnoticed or are mistaken for another skin condition. Because of this, most people infected with HSV-2 are not aware of their infection. When symptoms do occur, they typically appear as one or more blisters on or around the genitals, rectum or mouth. The blisters break and leave painful sores that may take two to four weeks to heal. Experiencing these symptoms is sometimes referred to as having an “outbreak.” The first time someone has an outbreak they may also experience flu-like symptoms such as fever, body aches and swollen glands.
Repeat outbreaks of genital herpes are common, in particular during the first year of infection. Symptoms of repeat outbreaks are typically shorter in duration and less severe than the first outbreak of genital herpes. Although the infection can stay in the body indefinitely, the number of outbreaks tends to decrease over a period of years.
Genital herpes can cause painful genital sores in many adults and can be severe in people with suppressed immune systems. If a person with genital herpes touches their sores or the fluids from the sores, they may transfer herpes to another part of the body. This is particularly problematic if it is a sensitive location such as the eyes. This can be avoided by not touching the sores or fluids. If they are touched, immediate and thorough hand-washing make the transfer less likely.
Some people who contract genital herpes have concerns about how it will impact their overall health, sex life, and relationships. It is best to talk to a health care provider about those concerns, but it also is important to recognize that while herpes is not curable, it is a manageable condition. Since a genital herpes diagnosis may affect perceptions about existing or future sexual relationships, it is important to understand how to talk to sexual partners about STDs.
There is no cure for herpes, but there are antiviral medications that can shorten and prevent outbreaks of sores as long as the person continues the medication. Taking this medicine every day can reduce the risk of passing the virus to a partner.
If you have herpes for the first time, visit your local clinic or doctor for a prescription of anti-viral tablets, works by preventing HSV from multiplying. However, it does not clear the virus from your body completely and does not have any effect once you stop taking it. You will need to take a course of anti-viral tablets (for example aciclovir) for at least five days, or longer if you still have new blisters and open sores forming on your genital area when your treatment begins. Anti-viral tablets can cause some side effects, including being sick and headaches.
You should visit your GP if you have been diagnosed with genital herpes before and are experiencing a recurrent outbreak.
If the symptoms are mild, your GP may suggest things you can do at home to help ease your symptoms without the need for treatment.
1. Keep the affected area clean using either plain or salt water. This will help prevent blisters or ulcers from becoming infected and may encourage them to heal quicker. It will also stop affected areas from sticking together.
2. Apply an ice pack wrapped in a flannel, or cold, wet, tea bags on the sores to help soothe pain and speed up the healing process. Do not apply ice directly to the skin.
3. Apply petroleum jelly, such as Vaseline, or an anaesthetic (painkilling) cream, such as 5% lidocaine, to any blisters or ulcers to reduce the pain when you pass urine.
4. Drink plenty of fluids to dilute your urine. This will make passing urine less painful. Passing urine while sitting in a bath or while pouring water over your genitals may also help.
5. Avoid wearing tight clothing because it may irritate the blisters and ulcers.
If your symptoms are more severe, you may be prescribed antiviral tablets (aciclovir), which you will need to take five times a day for five days.
If you have fewer than six recurrent outbreaks of genital herpes in a year, your GP may prescribe a five-day course of aciclovir each time you experience tingling or numbness before symptoms begin. This is known as episodic treatment.
If you have more than six recurrent outbreaks of genital herpes in a year, or if your symptoms are particularly severe and causing you distress, you may need to take aciclovir every day as part of a long-term treatment plan.
This is known as suppressive treatment and aims to prevent further outbreaks developing. In this instance, it is likely you will need to take aciclovir twice a day for six to 12 months.
It is important to note that while suppressive treatment can reduce the risk of passing HSV on to your partner, it cannot prevent it altogether.
HIV and genital herpes
If you are experiencing recurrent outbreaks of genital herpes you should also consider being tested for HIV. This may be a sign of a weakened immune system (the body’s natural defence against infection and illness), which may indicate you have HIV.
Correct and consistent use of latex condoms can reduce the risk of genital herpes. However, outbreaks can occur in areas that are not covered by a condom.
The surest way to avoid transmission of sexually transmitted diseases, including genital herpes, is to abstain from sexual contact, or to be in a long-term mutually monogamous relationship with a partner who has been tested and is known to be uninfected.
Persons with herpes should abstain from sexual activity with partners when sores or other symptoms of herpes are present. It is important to know that even if a person does not have any symptoms, he or she can still infect sex partners. Sex partners of infected persons should be advised that they may become infected and they should use condoms to reduce the risk. Sex partners can seek testing to determine if they are infected with HSV.
If you suspect you might have contracted a STD, you can do a self-test quiz, the STD Quiz.
You may also chat to a facilitator on LIVE CHAT. It is an anonymous, free, text-based helpline.