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
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
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
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 rare.
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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