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Campus Health

Health Education

Sexual Health

STIs: Genital Herpes
What is genital herpes?

Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted infection caused by the herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) or the herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2). When symptoms are present, genital herpes are usually characterized by one or more blisters on or around the genitals or rectum. Painful ulcers result when the blisters break, and the sores take two to four weeks to heal. The virus remains in the body indefinitely.

How is genital herpes transmitted?

HSV-1 and HSV-2 can be transmitted through contact with open sores or through the skin. Typically, a person only contracts HSV-2 through sexual contact with a person who is infected. Many people are unaware that they are infected.

HSV-1"cold sores." Up to 70% of people are infected and may recall having had a cold sore at some time in their life. Most people are infected during childhood. Cold sores can spread the infection to the genital area during oral sex.

HSV can be transmitted during childbirth from an infected mother to her newborn, particularly if the mother experiences the primary infection around the time of childbirth. A woman who is about to deliver and has herpes lesions present at the time of delivery will probably have a Cesarean section. A C-section will prevent the baby from coming into contact with the virus and being infected.

What are the symptoms of genital herpes?

Only 50% of individuals who are infected with HSV have symptoms severe enough that they realize they are infected. During the primary infection, symptoms typically appear within two to fourteen days after the infection or exposure. The primary (first) infection is usually the most severe.

Symptoms of the primary (first) infection may include:

  • Flu-like symptoms, including headache, fatigue, fever, and muscle aches
  • Painful blisters on the genitals, anus, thighs, or buttocks that seal and heal in two to four weeks
  • Tingling, itching, burning, or redness proceeding the appearance of blisters
  • Vaginal or penile discharge
  • Painful urination
  • Pain during intercourse
  • Enlarged, tender lymph nodes in the groin

Recurrent Infection: HSV-2 is more likely to recur than HSV-1 on the genitals. Recurrent outbreaks are usually less severe and last less time than the primary infection.

What causes outbreaks of genital herpes?

Some people never have an outbreak at all and have no outbreaks after an initial episode. After a person becomes infected, there are a number of factors that might facilitate an outbreak; and these factors are different for each person. These may include:

  • Anything that lowers a person's immunity: stress, lack of sleep, severe sunburn, illness, alcohol, finals week, etc.
  • Over-exposure to sunlight and tanning bed use.
How is genital herpes diagnosed?

Herpes is diagnosed by swabbing a blister to see if the virus is present. Blood tests can be used to determine if your body contains antibodies for HSV. It might take 12 to 16 weeks after an infection for HSV antibodies to show up in a blood test.

How is genital herpes treated?

Currently, there is no cure for genital herpes; but there are several options for managing the symptoms.

Antiviral medication can prevent or shorten the duration of outbreaks. Daily suppressive therapy can be prescribed to prevent outbreaks.

Tips to help manage outbreaks:

  • Keep sores clean and dry.
  • Wear loose clothing and cotton underwear.
  • Use ibuprofen or acetaminophen to decrease pain.
  • Avoid sharing towels or clothing.
  • Avoid douches, perfumed soaps, feminine hygiene deodorants, or other chemcials in the genital area.
  • Take a warm bath to help soothe symptoms.
  • Avoid sexual contact with others if you have an active infection.
Does my partner need to know that I have genital herpes?

Yes, you need to tell your partner as soon as you are diagnosed with the infection. If you already have the infection when you meet your partner, talk with your partner before initiating sex. The virus can be transmitted when symptoms are not present. Your partner needs to know about your infection so he or she is aware of the risk that he or she is taking.

What are the possible complications of genital herpes?

Genital herpes often causes psychological distress in individuals who think they are infected.

Herpes infections in newborns can be life-threatening.