Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted infection caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). It's a common STI that causes open blisters on the genital area and reoccurs in waves that vary in symptoms and time duration. There is currently no cure for herpes, but it is manageable with the right treatments.
Herpes is a viral STI so antibiotics cannot kill the infection. However, it is highly manageable with the right antiviral medication. There are two types of herpes virus - HSV 1 and HSV 2. Genital herpes is caused by both types.
If the HSV virus is present on an infected person's skin it can pass through the mucus membranes of your body which are your lips, penis, vagina and anal area.
The symptoms of herpes are not always noticeable when you contract the infection. You may not have symptoms right away. If you do they may appear four to seven days after the infection has taken place. Symptoms of genital herpes include:
Genital herpes can appear in waves. You may only experience a few outbreaks each year, but some people experience outbreaks more frequently. The first outbreak of herpes can last twenty days before the infection heals and the virus becomes dormant into a nerve. The first outbreak is often painful, but recurrent symptoms tend to ease in severity.
It's not known why herpes flares up but some suggested causes are stress, being ill, UV light, excessive alcohol, having a weakened immune system or friction on your genitals.
Before you develop blisters you may notice a tingling or burning feeling in your genitals and legs. This is a sign that you are about to experience another outbreak of herpes. The second and following outbreaks are generally shorter than the first because your body will recognise the infection and produce antibodies to fight it. Over time outbreaks may become less painful.
Don't confuse herpes with genital warts. Genital warts are caused by a different type of virus which is still infectious but generally these warts are painless. They can be frozen or burned away by your doctor or you can apply a cream to them. Never apply genital wart creams to herpes as this can lead to further infections.
No-one knows how many outbreaks you will experience as herpes is individual to everyone. Outbreaks usually last up to three weeks with the middle period being the most painful time.
Herpes is spread via skin-to-skin contact and genital herpes is usually caught via sex because even when there are no symptoms present the virus can be transferred.
If someone has a cold sore and performs oral sex, this can lead to a genital herpes infection. Dental dams or opened condoms can prevent this from happening. Sex toys can spread herpes but because the virus is fragile outside of the body it is rare.
HSV-1 is the strain that causes cold sores. This is spread through kissing, sharing toothbrushes and razors. Giving a person infected with genital herpes oral sex can lead to cold sores.
Herpes is easy to catch via the genitals. It's more common when blisters are present but can happen at any time. Skin-on-skin contact can transfer the herpes virus to any open or moist skin.
Diagnosing herpes is easy if you have blisters or sores present. Try to see your doctor or sexual health clinic when you have an outbreak so they can diagnose you straight away.
Testing is done via a swab. The swab collects fluid from a blister and the fluid is tested for the HSV virus. It is possible to test negative for herpes if you have no blisters present, but if you experience a recurrent bout of blisters herpes will be confirmed.
There is no cure for herpes but outbreaks can be successfully managed to reduce pain and the amount of time you experience symptoms.
During the first outbreak you are likely to be prescribed antiviral tablets such as Aciclovir or Valtrex which are tablets that need to be taken up to five times a day. Antivirals work by preventing the herpes virus from multiplying but it's unable to kill the virus completely.
Recurrent outbreaks are generally managed via self help although if the outbreak is severe antivirals can help. Remember the second outbreak is not usually as severe as the first.
Self help remedies include:
Episodic treatments for less than six outbreaks a year may be prescribed. This is generally a course of antivirals to prevent HSV multiplying. Suppressive treatment can be taken long-term if you have more than six outbreaks a year. Suppressive treatment seeks to prevent outbreaks rather than contain them.
Treating herpes can lessen the symptoms and amount of time you have to deal with an outbreak. Herpes needs management as it can be a painful condition when left untreated.
Treatment with antivirals is an effective way to lessen outbreaks. Self help measures go a long way to help, but they are not always suitable for the working environment.
Other reasons to treat herpes are:
To avoid pregnancy complications. If you give birth with an infection your baby could develop herpes. Contracting herpes whilst pregnant can lead to miscarriage in the early stages.
Currently there is no cure for herpes, but it does diminish over time with good management.
The herpes virus dies quickly when it leaves the confines of warm moist skin. It's unlikely you'll catch herpes from a cup. The risk is higher from towels, razors and toothbrushes.
Herpes goes into dormant mode after an outbreak but the virus does not leave your body. It can flare up at any point.
Not always. You will need a blister present to receive a herpes diagnosis.
No. Herpes does not affect your reproductive system like chlamydia or gonorrhoea can. It doesn't cause cancer either.
If you have a cold sore, you can pass the virus onto your partner during oral sex. If you have a cold sore it's not likely you will develop herpes unless you transmit the virus from your mouth to your genitals via touch.
Your doctor, sexual health or GUM clinic can provide treatment for genital herpes. They have a lot of information that will help you manage outbreaks. You can also buy antivirals online such as Acyclovir.
Herbal remedies for herpes are sold online but they are not clinically proven. They may help to soothe outbreaks of blisters at best. At worst they could harmful. It's recommended that you stick to reputable sites that issue prescription medicine.
All sexually active adults are at risk of transmitting and contracting STIs. STIs are common and the number of cases is rising in the UK.
STIs are preventable. Even if you have developed herpes you should always use condoms and practice the following measures to prevent picking up other STIs such as HIV, syphilis or chlamydia.
Here are some ways to protect yourself in future:
Genital herpes is a common STI. It's incurable but it can be managed to minimise symptoms and improve your quality of life. Speak to your doctor about antivirals and how they can support you during outbreaks. Once you have a prescription from your doctor you can order medicine online as and when you need it.
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