The Complete Guide to Genital Herpes


It could almost surely turn into a nightmare to find out one is suffering from a dreadful disease all because he didn’t take precautions when being intimate with someone he doesn’t really know. Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on how you view it, you’re not alone. The disease we are talking about is genital herpes and it’s presently affecting about 850 million people worldwide.

Genital herpes is one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases and the main culprit responsible is the herpes simplex virus, also referred to as HSV. It’s a contagious and aggressive disease that can find its way into one’s system through sexual contact. The person infected may not even know of the virus’s existence because the HSV can lie dormant in the body and can surface several times each year. In many cases, genital herpes may not manifest any symptoms and this becomes a problem because an infected person can transmit the disease even without being aware he’s infected.

Genital herpes can do a lot of damage, not to mention the pain, itching, and sores that form in the genital areas. The disease has no known cure but there are medications that can ease the symptoms and lessen the risk of infecting others. The most common defense against the spread of HSV is, of course, having no sex at all. But the urge will always be strong against abstinence. Instead, the next best option is a condom.

Basic Information About Genital Herpes

There are two kinds of genital herpes viruses. Type 1 or HSV-1  is the more common of the two in the developed world and this type normally causes oral herpes where the mouth and the lips are infected. Symptoms can include fever blisters or cold sores. Not long ago, HSV-1 was thought not to cause genital herpes, however, that’s being reversed, especially among the young who start having intercourse at early ages. Most cases of genital herpes are being attributed to HSV-2.

This type lives in the body’s nerves. When activated, the virus will move to the surface of infected areas, specifically mucous membranes and the skin. At this time, the new virus becomes a danger because it is at its most contagious stage and can rub off on others. After its shedding, the virus will then travel back down the nerve to a ganglion at the spine’s base where it becomes dormant again, at least for some time.

Surprisingly, about a fifth of all Americans aged 12 and above have this HSV-2 virus and about 90% of this group aren’t aware of it. According to studies, up to 80% of American adults have oral herpes. In terms of gender preference, women are more susceptible than men. One out of four of the fairer sex and one out of five for men. The more obvious reason for this is that women’s genitals are more easily infected. As people grow older, genital herpes becomes more common. Also, the more sex partners one has, the more common it becomes.

The most well-known type of sexual contact that can transmit HSV is by anal and vaginal sex. We have mentioned that HSV-1 can be transmitted through oral sex. However, it can also infect one’s genitals causing genital herpes. Conversely, HSV-2 which is transmitted from one’s genitals to another person’s mouth causing oral herpes. A positive note on all these is that HSV-2 can’t survive for a long period of time on non-living surfaces. This means that there’s no risk of acquiring the disease from a hot tub or a toilet bowl.

Facts About Genital Herpes to Know If You’re Sexually Active

Although genital herpes is a fairly common condition, not a lot of people know much about it. When it comes to this condition, most people would run away when they find out that another person has it. However, there is quite a number of myths surrounding genital herpes and these aren’t even based on accurate science. To start off, let’s discuss some of the basic facts about this condition. Generally, genital herpes spreads through skin-to-skin contact almost exclusively. Although in some exceptional cases, it can also spread through the use of sex toys if these are used in quick succession by both sex partners.

The fact is, the cells of the herpes virus aren’t actually able to survive for a long time when airborne. Generally, the infection spreads via the mucous membranes of the genital, anal or mouth areas which are moist. Sometimes though, it can also spread through any breaks in the skin even without mucus. That’s why it’s not a good idea to give hand jobs to people who are showing symptoms of genital herpes especially if one has an open cut or wound on his hand. Here are more facts about this condition:

There Are Two Main Types Which Can Both Be Considered as “Genital”. Technically, there are two main types of HSV namely herpes simplex 1 and herpes simplex 2. Their main differences lie in the common areas these viruses infect. Herpes simplex 1 is usually found in the oral area where one would get cold sores or blisters. On the other hand, herpes simplex 2 is mostly found in the genital areas.

Oral Herpes Can Also Be Transmitted to a Person’s Genitals. According to the World Health Organization, herpes simplex 1 can actually get transmitted to another person’s genitals. That’s why it’s highly inadvisable to give someone oral sex without protection when one has a cold sore. This is because the person might transfer the virus to the genitals of the sex partner. Unfortunately, this is a lot more common than a lot of people think. Statistics show that up to 50% of all herpes symptoms on the genitals are actually caused by herpes simplex 1.

However, It’s Unlikely for Genital Herpes to Get Transmitted to a Person’s Mouth.Although a person can transmit oral herpes to the genital area, it can’t happen the other way. Such cases, if any, are very rare.

Usually, the Very First Outbreak Is the Worst.It’s a fact that not all genital herpes cases are recurring. The CDC claims that more than 80% of people who have the herpes virus don’t show any symptoms. Although it’s a lot more common to have a recurring condition when one has herpes simplex 2, it’s not guaranteed that the condition will keep on coming back. And once it occurs, the first outbreak is typically the worst and it gets better from there even if the condition recurs. Of course, when it first happens, it will most likely be an unpleasant experience. One may experience flu-like symptoms, lesions, headaches, and even cold sores which take a long time before they heal. After this occurrence, a person may not experience the condition again or if he does, it won’t be as severe as the first time.

Outbreaks Reduce as a Person Grows Older. As a person grows older, reactivation of the virus gets rarer. Remember that herpes simplex 1 and herpes simplex 2 can spend long periods of time in “latency.” This means that they’re just dormant in a person’s nerves doing nothing. When reactivation occurs, they flare up and cause outbreaks. Studies revealed that these outbreaks are more common when a person’s immune system is “distracted” by other conditions such as other types of viruses or even stress. Also, as time goes by and a person grows older, the immune system probably gets used to the herpes simplex virus, although experts still aren’t sure about this.

Passing the Condition Back and Forth Doesn’t Really Happen. This is one of the weirder myths about genital herpes. Some claim that the body can “pass herpes back and forth” much like a ping pong or a tennis ball but there is no truth to this. If a person and his partner both have genital herpes, they don’t need to have protected sex just because they want to avoid “passing” the virus. In fact, one can’t worsen the virus by exposing himself to it repeatedly.

Although There’s No Cure for Genital Herpes, Treatment Is Available. If a person has genital herpes, the treatment for the condition is typically maintenance-based since there’s no cure for the condition yet. Usually, the doctor would prescribe antiviral medications depending on the patient’s frequency of flare-ups. The doctor may prescribe intermittent medications wherein the person may take them whenever he notices sores or itchiness. Or the doctor may prescribe suppressive medications wherein the person needs to take them daily. When a person undergoes suppressive therapy, this means that he may experience no outbreaks and this also significantly reduces the risk of spreading the virus to one’s sexual partner. Still, it’s recommended to use protection when having sex to guarantee safety.

What Happens When You Get Infected with Genital Herpes?

The most common way of transmitting genital herpes is through sexual contact. Once infected, the virus will enter the skin and travel along the body’s nerve paths where it takes residence. It can stay there in a dormant state and stay there indefinitely. One can even get infected without manifesting any signs or symptoms of infection.

After some dormancy, the virus can activate itself. When this occurs, the virus will move back along the nerve paths and into the skin’s surface. There, it will replicate itself to produce more viruses in a process known as “shedding”. It is at this point that a symptom outbreak may appear or the new viruses may stay undetected. In any case, the active virus becomes easily transmitted from one person to another through sexual contact. In case a condom is used, be informed that the virus can be present on skin that is not covered. Condoms may not be able to protect an uninfected partner from getting the disease.

Causes and Risk Factors of Genital Herpes

We have mentioned that genital herpes is caused by HSV or the herpes simplex virus and that this has two types, HSV-1 and HSV-2. Most infections of genital herpes are caused by the HSV-2 type while HSV-1 is usually the suspect on infections that involves the lips and the mouth. Sores that appear are referred to as fever blisters. This may be transmitted orally by kissing an infected partner. In rare cases, HSV-1 can also cause genital herpes through oral contact. Any genital sores that form look similar for either virus.

The most common method of transmitting the disease is by getting in contact with a person who is infected, either through sexual intercourse or oral sex. Because the virus’s entry is through the skin, any type of contact with the skin can be a cause to spread the disease. Any infected person, therefore, can transmit genital herpes. For infected men, spreading the disease to a female partner is a lot more common as against infected women spreading it to a male partner.

Since genital herpes symptoms may not manifest themselves, infected persons may not be aware that they carry the disease.  Much worse, they can spread it to their partners because the disease is either inactive or there are no visible symptoms like sores. Since genital herpes affects many, those who have had episodes of genital herpes should remember when it recurs. However, for those who have not yet experienced such episodes, they may fail to notice the symptoms or much worse, when there are no symptoms at all. This could mean that these people may have had genital herpes without knowing it or they may have had mild infections that they never associated with genital herpes. Whichever, they are carriers, are contagious, and they can spread the disease around.

Common Symptoms of Genital Herpes

In the USA, genital herpes is the most common disease that’s transmitted through sexual contact. Genital herpes symptoms can become apparent within a couple of days or weeks after getting infected. Many cases had their first symptom outbreak after months or sometimes years after infection. Those who display symptoms just after infection will usually display symptoms that are severe. The first sign will be the formation of blisters that will ultimately break open then become raw and painful sores. After a couple of weeks, they will heal and cause the formation of scabs. Accompanying these blisters is the occurrence of flu-like symptoms characterized by swollen lymph nodes and fever.

An outbreak will mean the emergence of blisters in herpes cases. This can take place as early as two days after infection or as late as thirty days afterward. For men, the general symptoms can include the appearance of blisters on the scrotum, penis, and the areas around the anus. For women, the general symptoms can include blisters around the vagina, the buttocks, and the anus. For both men and women, the symptoms can include blisters in the lips, mouth, face, and any other area that comes in contact with infected areas.

Infection can start as a tingle or an itch on the infection site before the appearance of the actual blisters. Eventually, these blisters become open sores that will ooze fluids. After a few weeks, a kind of crust may form over those sores and this is a sign of healing. Since this is an infection, the lymph nodes will react to fight the inflammation and infection. This action will cause body aches, fever, and headaches.

Sad to say, but genital herpes doesn’t spare newborn babies. The disease can be transmitted to the child through vaginal delivery. Babies with herpes can develop ulcers on the body, face, and on the genitals. With life just starting for them, their defenses are weak and the disease can cause severe complications to their health. This can include brain damage, blindness, and even death.

It is, therefore, important to inform the doctor if the pregnant mother has genital herpes. With such information, the doctor can take the necessary precautions to prevent the baby from contracting herpes. The most practical solution will be delivery by cesarean section rather than vaginal delivery.

There’s no cure for genital herpes and there is a great possibility it will recur. Luckily, later outbreaks will not be as severe as the first. For those who have gone through the experience, the first symptoms will be some pain or a tingling sensation in the affected area before the formation of ulcers or blisters. The pain is caused by the inflammation and irritation of the nerves which leads to the infected skin. When one starts feeling these symptoms, it serves as a warning that an outbreak is about to happen. It’s in this phase that the disease is at its most contagious even though the skin has yet to manifest the symptoms.

Complications and Precautions for Genital Herpes

Just like other kinds of diseases, genital herpes can cause more harm. Having genital herpes can lead to a number of complications:

  • One of the more common ones is the susceptibility to other kinds of sexually transmitted diseases. When one is herpes-infected, there’s a greater risk involved in contracting or transmitting other sexually transmitted infections and this includes AIDS.
  • Babies who are born to mothers infected with the virus will get exposed to it during vaginal delivery. Once infected, they’re exposed to complications like brain damage, death, and blindness.
  • Because the infected area includes the genitals, bladder problems can occur. Genital herpes sores can cause inflammations around the tube which delivers the urine from the bladder to the exterior. Swelling caused by herpes can shut the urethra for a number of days and this will require inserting a caterer to drain the bladder.
  • Meningitis can also be a complication, although rarely. HSV infections can lead to the membrane inflammation and cerebrospinal fluids that surrounds the spinal cord and the brain.
  • Since one of the areas that genital herpes can attack is the anus and its surrounding area, this could lead to the inflammation of the rectal linings, especially in men who are having sex with other men.
  • Pregnant women will need to notify their doctors that they have genital herpes. It may be recommended to take antiviral medications in the late part of their pregnancy to prevent any outbreak when it’s delivery time. In case there is an outbreak when a woman goes into labor, a cesarean operation will certainly be recommended to make sure that the herpes virus isn’t passed on to the baby.

When Do You Need to Seek Medical Care for Genital Herpes?

If a person thinks he has been infected with genital herpes, he will have to seek medical attention, especially if the condition is in the outbreak stage. Doctors will usually conduct tests for those who have not yet been previously exposed. Genital herpes isn’t a medical emergency but diagnosing and treating the disease in its first few days of the outbreak is more effective.

Genital herpes outbreaks are rarely treated in hospitals, except for those exposed to the disease for the first time. Newcomers, if you can call them that, should visit their doctor within the first couple of days of the disease. They can proceed to the emergency department where medical treatment can be started. Genital herpes infections can make some people really sick and can start showing signs of high fever, extreme fatigue, shortness of breath, severe headaches, and more. They should immediately visit the hospital for evaluation.

Outbreaks after the first will rarely need medical attention. Genital herpes is a recurring disease. Ask the doctor about options that can prevent further outbreaks in the future. People who have some other genital diseases like AIDS or HIV have a higher risk of much more serious illnesses if left unattended. It’s imperative that a person consults his doctor when he starts to develop sores.

It should also be emphasized that expecting mothers who are showing symptoms of this condition must inform their doctor. This way, the doctor can take the necessary precautions to reduce the danger of transmitting it to the newborn when it passes through the birth canal.

Genital herpes infections can also aggravate the conditions of people who have some other serious medical illnesses. The HSV virus can spread to affect the lungs, brain, and the other organs which could weaken the body’s defenses. Those who fall under this predicament should also seek immediate medical attention when they experience herpes outbreaks. This is to ensure that their symptoms can be signs of some conditions other than genital sores.

How Do Doctors Diagnose Genital Herpes?

The doctor will base his treatment of genital herpes on how the sores look, that is if the sores are typical of the disease. To make a better assessment, the doctor can acquire a swab sample and send this to the hospital laboratory to check for the presence of the HSV virus. There are various types of test performed on the sample that can establish the doctor’s diagnosis. This can include culture of the virus, a polymerase chain reaction to show the genetic composition of the virus, and a test which uses antibodies to show if the HSV virus is present in the clinical specimens. Generally, it will require a couple of days to complete all these tests. Aside from these tests, a blood test may also be ordered to confirm if an immune response is present.

Treatment for Genital Herpes

Antiviral drugs may help alleviate the suffering of people caused by genital herpes, especially during the outbreak stage. Taking these medications can make them symptom-free for longer periods of time and may even reduce the disease’s severity when it flares up. Keep in mind that antiviral drugs aren’t a cure but their use can potentially make living life a lot better. To reiterate, there’s still no known cure for genital herpes. Still, there are currently three main drugs that are commonly used in the treatment of the symptoms of genital herpes. Let’s take a look at the different kinds of treatment for genital herpes:

Initial Treatment. When it’s a person’s first time to be diagnosed with this condition, the doctor will typically brief him about genital herpes. An antiviral therapy which will last up to 10 days will be recommended. This therapy will bring relief from the pain caused by the herpes sores. It will also prevent the sores from becoming worse. If the sores won’t heal as expected after a period of time, the doctor can keep the person on the antiviral drugs a little longer.

Intermittent Treatment. Genital herpes is a recurring disease. Those infected should be ready in case the next flare-up comes along. This is referred to an intermittent therapy. The doctor can give a prescription of antiviral drugs which one can keep with him in case of recurrence. Since the first symptoms usually involve sores, a person can readily start the treatment by taking the pills for a certain number of days. A fast response is important as it can make one’s symptoms less severe or can even make those symptoms fade away faster. If things go right, the sores will heal and disappear on their own.

Suppressive Treatment. For those who have outbreaks very often, the doctor may recommend taking the drug daily. This is referred to as a suppressive treatment. This type of treatment can decrease the outbreaks by up to 80%. A lot of those who use suppression therapy by taking the drug each day and don’t have any outbreaks.

Doctors have not set a definite number of outbreaks that would decide if suppression therapy is to be used. They would rather base their decision on how frequently the outbreaks occur and how severe they are that they might start interfering with the patient’s life. An advantage of suppression therapy is that it reduces the risk of spreading the disease to one’s sex partner. The antiviral drug reduces the shedding of the virus when it becomes active.

Tips for Reducing the Risk of Genital Herpes

If a person wants to avoid getting the virus, the most important thing to do is to follow safe sex practices. Also, it’s a good idea to limit one’s number of sexual partners. The best thing to do is to use condoms unless one is in a monogamous relationship with a person who doesn’t have genital herpes.

People who have genital herpes should, as much as possible, abstain from sex and other sexual activities when they’re manifesting the symptoms. Also, they should inform their sexual partners about the infection and make use of condoms when having sex. Even if the person doesn’t show the symptoms, safe sex should still be practiced as he might still shed the virus and start infecting others. Some evidence suggests that infected people may reduce the severity and frequency of the recurrences while also reducing the risk of spreading the infection to their sexual partners by taking the proper medication. Those who have active sores due to genital herpes have a higher risk of getting infected with HIV if they’re exposed through sexual activity. And if a person has both HIV and genital herpes, he has a higher chance of spreading the condition to other people.

Also, pregnant women with visible ulcers from the condition when they deliver their baby would be recommended to deliver through a cesarean section to avoid infecting the newborn baby. Of course, the decision to deliver the baby through this method is actually based on a number of factors. Therefore, women with genital herpes should discuss with their physician early in their pregnancy. If a woman has her first outbreak when she delivers her baby, she will have the highest risk of passing the virus on to her baby. Because of this, some doctors may recommend that pregnant women take antiviral medications during the last weeks of their pregnancy but this, again, would depend on different factors.

For anyone who wants to reduce the risk of genital herpes, here are some tips:

Use a Condom Each Time One Has Sex Choose a latex condom which covers the entire area that’s affected to protect oneself from getting the herpes virus.

Before Having Sex, Ask One’s Partner If He/She Has Genital Herpes or Any Other Kind of Sexually Transmitted Disease. A lot of people with genital herpes aren’t even aware that they’re affected. So it’s also important to ask one’s partner if he’s ever had other types of STDs. Keep in mind that those who have a history of the sexually transmitted disease have a higher likelihood of having genital herpes.

Although some people may find this awkward, it’s important, to be honest with one’s partner especially before having any kind of sexual activity. Asking will make one’s partner feel more comfortable with talking about the condition and, therefore, would more likely give straight answers.

Also, Ask One’s Partner About His/Her Sexual History. This is also important since a person who has had a lot of sexual partners has a higher risk of being infected with genital herpes.

Try to Limit the Number of Sexual Partners. If a person has few sexual partners in his whole lifetime, he has a lesser likelihood of being exposed to the genital herpes virus.

Never Have Sex with Someone Who Has Sores on the Genitals. A person may already know that his/her partner has genital herpes. In such case, always abstain from any sexual activities if one’s partner is manifesting the symptoms. It’s also important to abstain from having sex if one’s partner has sores on his/her genitals. Keep in mind that not everyone who has genital herpes will show symptoms and the sores are quite difficult to notice.

Never Accept Oral Sex from Someone Who Has a Cold Sore in the Mouth. Since oral herpes can be transmitted from the mouth to the genitals through oral sex, this is also to be avoided if one’s partner has cold sores in his/her mouth.

Ask One’s Partner to Get Tested for Genital Herpes. If a person thinks that his partner has a high risk of genital herpes, he should consider asking his partner to get tested. To make it less awkward, they can get tested together.

Don’t Have Intercourse While Intoxicated. Illegal drugs and alcohol can impair judgment and lower inhibitions. When this happens, people aren’t as careful and tend to ignore the safe sex practices often regretting the consequences afterward.

Abstain from Sex Until One Finds a Life-Long Monogamous Partner. The best way a person can be fully certain that he won’t get any kind of STD is to only have sex with one partner who doesn’t have any STD. And this will only work if both remain monogamous.

Try Different Forms of Being Sexually Intimate. A lot of people don’t really want to be celibate or monogamous until they’ve found their partner in life. In such cases, one can still reduce the risk of getting genital herpes and other STDs by trying other forms of being sexually intimate which don’t involve oral-genital or genital-genital contact like mutual masturbation and more.


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