Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted infection caused by the HSV-1 or HSV-2 virus and infects both men and women. People who have genital herpes could experience sores, pains, and itching in their genital area or no symptoms at all. The infection could be contagious even though an individual isn’t showing any visible sores.
Let’s discuss the types of herpes to look out for:
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Herpes Simplex Virus Type 1, or HSV-1, is the technical term for oral herpes. It can be contracted during childhood from non-sexual contact with saliva and can be spread by kissing or sharing toothbrushes. Typically, HSV-1 takes the form of cold sores around the mouth but it can be spread to the genitals through oral sex.
Most people are referring to Herpes Simplex Virus Type 2 (HSV-2) when they use the term herpes. This version of the virus causes genital sores and is transmitted through both sexual and body-to-body contact.
Herpes is Extremely Common
Both types of herpes are quite common throughout the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, genital herpes is actually the third most common STI. Throughout the nation, an estimated one out of every six people, aged 14 to 49 years of age, have contracted genital herpes.
According to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, herpes is the second most common STI in the United States. More than one-out-of-six people between the ages 14 to 49 are living with this infection. The number may be even higher considering individuals who have never been tested and those who initially developed HSV-1 at an earlier point in life and now have genital herpes.
Herpes can be transmitted through vaginal, anal, or oral sex with a person carrying the disease. The fluids found in a herpes sore carry the virus. Any contact with those fluids can cause a person to contract the infection. It is also possible to contract the virus in the absence of sores. After the first point of contact, the virus can remain dormant in a body and then cause outbreaks several times in a year.
Symptoms of Herpes
There are certain symptoms of herpes that are extremely well-known. For an HSV-1 strain, these are typically fever sores or cold sores around the mouth. Someone infected with HSV-2 may notice sores or blisters around their genitals, thighs or rectum. These blisters can break and leave painful sores that will scab over and then heal. You may also experience cracked, raw, or red areas around your genitals, which may or may not be accompanied by itchiness, tingling, some mild pain and painful urination.
Experiencing symptoms is called having an outbreak and can be common in the first year of contracting the disease, but the severity and frequency of the outbreaks decreases with time. During the first outbreak, it is possible that the carrier will also have flu-like symptoms such as fever, headache, back aches, fatigue or swollen lymph nodes. Sores are visible in the areas of your body where the infection entered. The infection can spread when you touch the sores and rub other parts of your body. Recurring outbreaks tend to be less painful and heal faster.
Unfortunately, herpes is often asymptomatic. This is why it goes undiagnosed so often–which in turn contributes to the spread of the virus. Someone can have the virus and never show any symptoms or signs. The mild bumps that people usually associate with this STI can easily be mistaken for an ingrown hair or acne. Because of this, many people will never realize that they are infected. Testing yourself regularly, whether or not you’re experiencing symptoms, is the best way to know exactly what’s going on. If you’re sexually active, you should be testing yourself regularly.
Symptoms of HSV-2 in Women
In women, herpes can cause a vaginal or pelvic infection as well. Any of the following symptoms could be a sign of an HSV-2 infection in women:
- Discomfort similar to a yeast, bacterial or bladder infection
- Sores in or around the vagina, vulva or urethra
- Bleeding between periods
Symptoms of HSV-2 in Men:
In men, herpes may cause a penile infection. These symptoms may indicate an HSV-2 infection in men:
- Sores on or around the penis
- Swelling or discomfort in the groin nodes
As mentioned earlier, most cases of genital herpes (HSV-2) are caused by genital-on-genital contact, but oral sex (HSV-1) can cause HSV-2 as well. Both versions of HSV can be passed to partners whether or not the carrier is showing symptoms. Knowing the status of your own sexual health, as well as that of your sexual partners, is the best way to stay safe. Testing is the only way to tell what is HSV and what is not.
The Effect of Herpes on Pregnancy
Herpes can cause extra complications for pregnant women. It is possible to pass the herpes infection directly to the unborn baby. If left untreated, this infection can lead to a miscarriage or premature delivery.
When HSV is passed to a baby it can cause a potentially deadly infection called neonatal herpes. This is potentially fatal if not diagnosed and treated properly. Women that are infected with herpes absolutely must have regular prenatal checkups. It’s the best way to make sure you and your baby remain safe.
Herpes and HIV
The nature of an untreated HSV infection can increase your chances of contracting HIV. Herpes sores tend to break and bleed rather easily. Since HIV is transferred through blood, either category of HSV can put you at increased risk of contracting HIV when these sores come into contact with the mouth, vagina, or rectum of someone who is HIV-positive.
Testing and Prevention
If you are sexually active, using a condom during any sex act can dramatically reduce the chances of contracting or spreading herpes. That said, a condom isn’t a foolproof solution. It can only protect against infections that are contained within the areas covered by the condom. Skin cells shed and if those cells contain the virus, it is possible to contract the infection from places where a condom won’t reach. Any sore not covered by the condom may still spread the infection.
Don’t assume that herpes is only present during times of an active herpes outbreak because the virus can be contracted at other times. Getting tested is the only way to know whether or not you have HSV. Talk to partners about the risks, and brainstorm ways you can enjoy intimacy during those times when genital contact isn’t safe.
Unfortunately, there is no cure for either strain of HSV. Not yet, at least. Once you are infected, herpes remains in your body for life. Fortunately, for an incurable STD herpes is quite manageable. You should see your doctor who can prescribe some antiviral medications for you and tell you how to use them only when symptoms of an outbreak occurs as well as when there are no signs of an outbreak.
Modern treatments can manage the symptoms of herpes. Proper medication can lower the frequency of outbreaks, relieve the pain from symptoms and shorten the amount of time that an outbreak lasts. When treated, it is possible to limit the risk of spreading the infection to your partners.
Since herpes is so common, people are generally very understanding about it. Disclosing that you’re infected isn’t the mood killer it used to be. The stigma surrounding this virus has decreased significantly in recent years. Knowing whether or not you have HSV is part of being a responsible sexual partner. It can also go a long way toward providing peace of mind for both
You might be surprised to find that your partner is also infected. It’s very common for both sexual partners have HSV, and for both to be afraid to share their status. You can (and should) let go of that fear by getting tested and educating yourself on the risks and how to mitigate them.
Reviewed by Luis Ferdinand M. Papa, MD, MHA
- Genital Shedding of Herpes Simplex Virus Among Symptomatic and Asymptomatic Persons With HSV-2 Infection. Journal of the American Medical Association. 2011. .
- The frequency of unrecognized type 2 herpes simplex virus infection among women: Implications for the control of genital herpes. Sexually Transmitted Diseases. 1990. .
- A Pooled Analysis of the Effect of Condoms in Preventing HSV-2 Acquisition. Archives of Internal Medicine. 2009. .
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