Causes and symptoms: Herpes infections are caused by herpes simplex virus (HSV). There are two strains of HSV, both of which can cause genital herpes. When the symptoms are visible, HSV type 1 is more likely to affect the lips causing sores known as fever blisters or cold sores, but it also can infect the genital area and produce sores there. HSV type 2 is strain that usually triggers an attack of genital herpes, but it also can infect the mouth during oral sex.
Often a person infected with the virus does not realize that he has herpes because there are no visible symptoms. However, if the symptoms are visible, herpes can result in an outbreak of painful blisters or open sores in the genital area, i.e. in and around the vaginal area, on the penis, around the anal opening, and on the buttocks or thighs. Small red bumps appear first, develop into blisters, and then become painful open sores. Over several days, the sores become crusty and then heal without leaving a scar.
Some other symptoms that may go with the first episode of genital herpes are: fever, headache, muscle aches, painful or difficult urination, vaginal discharge, swollen glands in the groin area, itching or burning feeling in the genital or anal area, pain in the legs, buttocks, or genital area and feeling of pressure in the abdomen.
Herpes is highly contagious. People often get genital herpes by having sexual contact with others who don't know they are infected or who are having outbreaks of herpes without any sores. The virus can also spread from one area to another on the same person. A person with genital herpes also can infect a sexual partner during oral sex. The virus is spread only rarely, if at all, by touching objects such as a toilet seat or hot tub.
Diagnosis: Herpes can be diagnosed through a Pap smear, a special herpes culture or a blood test. It can also be diagnosed at the time of a pelvic examination if the sores are visible. The most accurate method of diagnosis is the special herpes culture.
Treatment: The bad news is that there is no cure for genital herpes. While the herpes sores usually disappear within two to three weeks, the virus has come to stay and remains in the body for life. Therefore, any treatment will merely provide symptomatic relief. The doctor will prescribe certain medicines that will give the infected person some relief. In addition, there are a few simple steps that an infected person can follow to speed up the healing process and prevent the spread of infection:
Recurrence: HSV remains in certain nerve cells of the body for life, and can produce symptoms off and on in some infected people. Even after the sores are gone, the virus stays inside the nerve cells in a still and hidden state, which means that it's inactive. After the first outbreak, any future outbreaks are usually mild and last only about a week.
- Keep the infected area clean and dry to prevent other infections from developing.
- Try to avoid touching the sores.
- Wash your hands after contact with the sores.
- Avoid sexual contact from the time you first feel any symptoms until the sores are completely healed, that is, the scab has fallen off and new skin has formed where the sore was.
Complications: If a pregnant woman has genital herpes, she can transmit the virus to her baby. Half of the babies infected with herpes either die or suffer from damage to their nerves. If babies born with herpes are treated immediately their chances of being healthy are increased. Therefore, it is advisable for doctors to closely monitor pregnant women infected with genital herpes, before, during, and after the baby is born. If a woman is having an outbreak during labor and delivery and there are herpes lesions in or near the birth canal, the doctor will do a cesarean section to protect the baby.
Genital herpes, like other genital diseases that produce sores, increases a person's risk of getting HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
Prevention: If you have early signs of a herpes outbreak or visible sores, you should not have sexual intercourse or oral sex until the signs are gone and/or the sores have healed completely. Between outbreaks, using condoms during sexual intercourse may offer some protection from the virus.