What is Genital Herpes?
Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted disease
(STD) caused by the herpes simplex viruses type 1 (HSV-1) or type 2 (HSV-2). Most genital herpes is caused by
HSV-2. Most individuals have no or only minimal signs or symptoms from HSV-1 or HSV-2 infection. When signs do
occur, they typically appear as one or more blisters on or around the genitals or rectum. The blisters break,
leaving tender ulcers (sores) that may take two to four weeks to heal the first time they occur. Typically,
another outbreak can appear weeks or months after the first, but it almost always is less
severe and shorter than the first outbreak.
Although the infection can stay in the body indefinitely, the number of
outbreaks tends to decrease over a period of years.
How common is Genital Herpes?
Results of a nationally representative study show that genital herpes infection
is common in the United States. Nationwide, at least 45 million people ages 12 and older, or one out of five
adolescents and adults, have had genital HSV infection. Over the past decade, the percent of Americans with
genital herpes infection in the U.S. has decreased.
Genital HSV-2 infection is more common in women (approximately one out of four
women) than in men (almost one out of eight). This may be due to male-to-female transmission being more likely
than female-to-male transmission.
How do people get Genital Herpes?
HSV-1 and HSV-2 can be found in and released
from the sores that the viruses cause, but they also are released between outbreaks from skin that does not
appear to have a sore. Generally, a person can only get HSV-2 infection during sexual contact with someone who
has a genital HSV-2 infection. Transmission can occur from an infected partner who does not have a visible sore
and may not know that he or she is infected.
HSV-1 can cause genital herpes, but it more commonly causes
infections of the mouth and lips, so-called “fever blisters.” HSV-1 infection of the genitals can be caused by
oral-genital or genital-genital contact with a person who has HSV-1 infection. Genital HSV-1 outbreaks recur
less regularly than genital HSV-2 outbreaks.
What are the signs and symptoms of Genital Herpes?
Most people infected with HSV-2 are not aware of their
infection. However, if signs and symptoms occur during the first outbreak, they can be quite pronounced. The
first outbreak usually occurs within two weeks after the virus is transmitted, and the sores typically heal
within two to four weeks. Other signs and symptoms during the primary episode may include a
second crop of sores, and flu-like symptoms, including fever and swollen glands. However, most individuals with
HSV-2 infection never have sores, or they have very mild signs that they do not even notice or that they mistake
for insect bites or another skin condition.
People diagnosed with a first episode of genital herpes can
expect to have several (typically four or five) outbreaks (symptomatic recurrences) within a year. Over time
these recurrences usually decrease in frequency. It is possible that a person becomes aware of the “first
episode” years after the infection is acquired.
What are the complications of Genital Herpes?
Genital herpes can cause recurrent painful genital sores in many adults, and
herpes infection can be severe in people with suppressed immune systems. Regardless of severity of symptoms,
genital herpes frequently causes psychological distress in people who know they are infected.
In addition, genital HSV can lead to potentially fatal infections in babies. It
is important that women avoid contracting herpes during pregnancy because a newly acquired infection during late
pregnancy poses a greater risk of transmission to the baby. If a woman has active genital herpes at delivery, a
cesarean delivery is usually performed. Fortunately, infection of a baby from a woman with herpes infection is
Herpes may play a role in the spread of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Herpes
can make people more susceptible to HIV infection, and it can make HIV-infected individuals more
How is Genital Herpes diagnosed?
The signs and symptoms associated with HSV-2 can vary greatly. Health care
providers can diagnose genital herpes by visual inspection if the outbreak is typical, and by taking a sample
from the sore(s) and testing it in a laboratory. HSV infections can be diagnosed between outbreaks by the use of
a blood test. Blood tests, which detect antibodies to HSV-1 or HSV-2 infection, can be helpful, although the
results are not always clear-cut.
What is the treatment for Genital Herpes?
There is no treatment that can cure herpes, but antiviral medications can
shorten and prevent outbreaks during the period of time the person takes the medication. In addition, daily
suppressive therapy for symptomatic herpes can reduce transmission to partners.
How can Genital Herpes be prevented?
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.
Genital ulcer diseases can occur in both male and female genital areas that are
covered or protected by a latex condom, as well as in areas that are not covered. Correct and consistent use of
latex condoms can reduce the risk of genital herpes.
Persons with herpes should abstain from sexual activity with uninfected
partners when lesions 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. A positive HSV-2
blood test most likely indicates a genital herpes
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