Just got diagnosed with genital herpes? You are not alone! You should know that this is a very common condition, and that usually does not cause any serious health problem; however, anxiety, anger or even depression are common feelings every time the virus makes its appearance… And, as with HPV infection, misinformation makes things worse…
In this article you will find the most important facts regarding genital herpes:
Getting to know genital herpes
Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted infection (STI). It is caused by a virus called herpes simplex virus (HSV).
The herpes virus causes painful sores and blisters in the genital area, the anus, the thighs and the buttocks. Sometimes though, the HSV infection causes no symptoms at all; in fact many people are infected with HSV and don’t know it.
There are two types of HSV: HSV-1 and HSV-2. In general, type 2 affects the genital area and HSV-1 is the main cause of cold sores on the mouth or face. However, both types can cause either genital or oral infections.
How common is it?
It is estimated that 1 or 2 in 10 people (10-20%) are infected with the HSV; of those, 80% don’t have any symptoms. Genital herpes is more common in women than in men.
How did I get genital herpes?
- As stated before, genital herpes is sexually transmitted: the HSV is spread through direct contact with herpes sores during vaginal, oral or anal sex. The virus can be passed to others during a first infection, with subsequent outbreaks or even if there are no evident sores (see below).
- The HSV dies quickly away from the body; thus, it’s extremely unlikely -if not impossible- to get genital herpes any other way than by sexual contact, such as from towels, toilet sits or hot tubs.
- It is possible to get infected by sharing sex toys with a partner who has the virus.
- Infected people can transmit the virus to other parts of their own bodies (for example if you touch your cold sore on the mouth and then you touch your genitals). This process, known as autoinoculation, although theoretically possible is extremely rare, as our body develops -in most cases- antibodies that protect us against autoinoculation.
Is there any way of knowing how long I’ve had the herpes virus?
When a person is first infected with HSV, symptoms appear about 2–20 days after the virus enters the body.
However, many people have genital herpes for years or even decades without knowing it; that is, the virus remains silent for years, and at some point it becomes symptomatic. This situation can create misunderstanding in a monogamous couple, as a person assumes his/her partner was unfaithful, which may not be true.
What are the symptoms of genital herpes?
The symptoms are different the first time and the recurrent episodes.
–During the first herpes infection you may have:
- flu-like symptoms: such as fever, chills, muscle aches, fatigue and nausea;
- swelling of the lymph nodes in the groin;
- stinging or burning feeling while urinating.
- sores: initially small, fluid-filled blisters, often grouped in clusters; the area where the sores appear may be swollen and tender. Over a period of days, the sores open and release fluid, become crusted and then heal without leaving scars.
The first outbreak of genital herpes may last 2-4 weeks.
After this first infection, HSV remains in the body for life, within some specific nerve cells. Under certain circumstances (see below), the virus becomes active again: it travels along the nerves back to the genital area, and causes a new outbreak of sores. This is called a recurrence.
-During the recurrent outbreaks the symptoms are:
- a prodrome: a burning, itching, or tingling sensation in the lower back, buttocks, thighs, or knees;
- few hours later, sores may appear, usually without fever or swelling in the genital area.
The sores heal more quickly, within 3-7 days in most cases. Also, recurrent outbreaks usually are less painful.
What can trigger herpes outbreaks?
Although it is not always clear why or when the herpes virus will reactivate, certain factors are known to trigger herpes outbreaks. The most common are:
- Stress: either physical (fatigue) or emotional (depression, anxiety).
- Weak immune system: caused by sickness, infections, certain medications, etc.
- Trauma or irritation of the genital area: due to vigorous sex, intense sweating, tight clothes, etc.
- Exposure to sunlight or ultraviolet light.
- Hormone fluctuations: some women may notice that outbreaks are more common right before their period, or during pregnancy.
- Excessive alcohol consumption.
- Certain foods: some studies (here and here) have found L-arginine, an amino acid present in food can aggravate or cause more frequent herpes outbreaks. Foods high in arginine include: nuts (almonds, walnuts, cashews, peanuts), grains (whole wheat, oats, brown rice, flour products), chocolate and caffeinated beverages.
How often will I have symptoms of genital herpes?
- The frequency and intensity of the outbreaks vary with each person. While some people have frequent, painful outbreaks with many sores, others have only rare and mild symptoms.
- Outbreaks usually are most frequent in the first year after infection. For many people, the number of outbreaks decreases over time.
Is genital herpes a serious condition?
- Genital herpes is not life threatening in itself.
- One of the biggest problems of genital herpes is the emotional burden. The fact that genital herpes causes painful symptoms, imposes certain limitations on sexual activity, and it’s a lifelong condition may lead to frustration, anxiety, anger and depression (read more here). Don’t hesitate to discuss your feelings with your doctor, who can advise you how to cope with them.
- Having herpes sores makes it easier for HIV (the virus that causes AIDS) to enter the body. Moreover, having both viruses together may make each one worse.
- A pregnant woman can pass herpes on to her baby (see below). Therefore, it is very important that you inform your doctor if you are pregnant and have herpes.
How can I find out if I have the herpes virus?
If you think you have genital herpes you should consult a healthcare provider, who can diagnose herpes by performing a physical exam and certain laboratory tests:
- If sores are present, a sample of fluid taken from a sore can show if you have the virus and what type of HSV it is. The sample may be tested with several techniques, of which cultures and polymerase chain reaction (PCR) are the most utilized.
- Blood tests can detect the antibodies our body produces to fight the virus; these tests can show the type of HSV as well.
How is genital herpes treated?
- There is no cure for genital herpes.
- However, antiviral medications – aciclovir, famciclovir and valaciclovir – can reduce the duration of the outbreak and make symptoms less severe. There is some evidence that these drugs also reduce the risk of giving herpes to someone else.
- When taken on a daily basis, medications can decrease or completely prevent the outbreaks. This is called suppressive therapy and is indicated, among other situations, in persons suffering very frequent outbreaks (usually more than six episodes per year).
How can genital herpes be prevented?
- Condoms may reduce your risk of passing or getting HSV, but do not provide complete protection: areas of skin that have the virus but are not covered by the condom can spread the infection.
- Avoid sexual intercourse if you or your partner has visible sores on the genitals; likewise, you shouldn’t receive oral sex from someone who has a sore on the mouth. Also, pay close attention to the prodromic symptoms announcing an outbreak: sexual contact should be avoided from the time you feel the prodrome until a few days after the sores have gone away. Although less contagious, herpes can be spread even if there are no visible lesions, through a process known as shedding (means that the herpes virus is active on the skin). Unfortunately, there is no way to know when a person is shedding.
- Wash your hands thoroughly after any possible contact with sores, in order to avoid reinfecting yourself or passing the virus to someone else.
- In certain cases, suppressive therapy may be proposed to reduce the risk of passing the infection to your partner.
- Once you got the virus, avoiding known triggers may reduce the frequency and intensity of outbreaks: a good diet, enough rest, stress management may all help.
Will herpes affect my pregnancy or my baby?
- If you are pregnant and infected with HSV you may pass it to your baby, who may eventually develop a severe infection called neonatal herpes.
- Although the virus may rarely spread through the placenta, most babies get infected during a vaginal birth, with the passage through the infected birth canal (vagina).
- This is most likely to occur if you first become infected with HSV during pregnancy and if you have your first outbreak late in pregnancy. It is possible to transmit the virus even if you were infected before pregnancy and you have a recurrent outbreak near delivery, but the risk is much lower.
- In certain cases, you may be offered herpes medicine towards the end of your pregnancy to reduce the risk of having any symptoms and passing the virus to your baby.
- If you have sores or warning signs of an outbreak at the time of delivery, you may need to have a cesarean section to reduce the odds of infecting your baby.
Can I breastfeed my baby if I have the herpes virus?
- In most cases you will be able to breastfeed; in fact, herpes virus is not transmitted through breast milk.
- Whether you breastfeed or not, the baby may get infected by touching a sore on your body. To avoid spreading the virus, cover your sores and thoroughly wash your hands before holding your baby. If you have a herpes blister on your breast don’t nurse from that side until the area has completely cleared up.
Centers for Disease Control and Infections: Genital Herpes: CDC Fact Sheet (USA)
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists: Genital Herpes (USA)