Student Health Services
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Genital herpes is a contagious viral infection transmitted through sexual contact. It is the most common cause of genital ulcers. Genital herpes occurs worldwide, and is one of the most common sexually transmitted infections in the United States. More than 45 million people have genital herpes.
The symptoms of genital herpes may be either acute or recurrent. Acute (initial) symptoms may appear days after exposure to the virus, but may be delayed for weeks or months. The first symptom is a burning, tingling sensation where a sore is forming.
A blister quickly develops and will rupture within 24-48 hours. An ulcer or open sore then forms at the site of the blister. The sore will gradually disappear in about two weeks, but may be painful when present. Herpes sores may be single, or may be multiple, covering the entire genital region.
Recurrent herpes is possible, because even though the acute sore will disappear, the virus remains in the body. It may be reactivated by many circumstances (stress, fever, friction, heat, etc.) and sores will reappear at the initial site. Not every person will experience recurrent herpes. When it is recurrent, sores usually have a shorter course than in the initial stage.
Some individuals who have the herpes virus may not realize it. There may be no symptoms or very mild symptoms, so the person is not aware of the infection. American Social Health Association estimates that as many as 90% of individuals who have herpes may not be aware that they have the virus.
Cause and Diagnosis
Genital herpes is caused by the Herpes Simplex Virus. There are two general types of this virus: HSV-1 and HSV-2. HSV-1 is considered primarily oral and HSV-2 is considered primarily genital, but both can cause oral and genital herpes.
Visual examination by a clinician will generally provide the diagnosis for genital herpes. A positive diagnosis can be established with a culture of the virus taken from the sores, but culture specimens must be obtained while the sores are still moist, usually within the first 48 hours after symptoms appear.
There is a blood test that can be used when a person has no visible symptoms but has concerns about having herpes. Blood tests do not actually detect the virus but look for antibodies (the body's immune response) in the blood.
Like any blood test, these tests cannot determine whether the site of infection is oral or genital. However, by using a test that distinguishes between HSV-1 and HSV-2, a fairly accurate assessment can be made since genital herpes is primarily caused by HSV-2. If one receives a positive result for type-2 antibodies, it most likely indicates genital herpes. For the most accurate result, it is recommended to wait at least 12 - 16 weeks from the last possible expose to herpes before getting an accurate blood test to allow enough time for antibodies to develop.
There is no cure for genital herpes, but it can be effectively treated. There are several medications currently being used to treat genital and oral herpes. Check with your health care provider for the best option for you.
Treatment is enhanced by keeping the affected area clean and dry. Care should be taken to avoid touching the sores, and sexual activity should be avoided until any sores are completely healed.
If you are considering sexual activity, honest conversations with your partner about previous sexual experiences are important. Another option is to abstain from sex until your relationship has become well established and there is a commitment to each other.
If you (or your partner) have genital herpes, transmission of the disease can be prevented by avoiding sexual contact, including oral sex, whenever sores or blisters are present on the genitals, lips or mouth. Abstain from sexual activity until the sores have healed and completely disappeared. Herpes may be transmitted even when no symptoms are present.
Condoms provide some protection during oral, vaginal and anal sex. Because herpes is transmitted through skin-to-skin contact, this protection is not 100% and herpes could still be transmitted if one partner was infected.
Sheer glyde dams or other latex barriers can also provide protection during oral sex performed on a female. For more information on herpes transmission during oral sex, please visit the Sexual Health page on Oral Sex.
The Risk of Genital Herpes
Although genital herpes is an incurable sexually transmitted infection, the adult human is seldom seriously affected by it, as genital herpes can be effectively treated. There are also no long term health consequences of having the virus.
The virus may, however, be fatal to newborn infants. Herpes can be transmitted to a baby if the mother is having an outbreak during delivery.