Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted disease caused by infection with the herpes simplex virus (HSV). HSV-2 is the common causative agent while the disease may also be caused by HSV-1, the virus causing oral herpes. About 17% of Americans in the age group of 14 to 49 years have genital herpes with about 1 million affected individuals added every year. People engaging in multiple sexual contacts without appropriate protection have higher chances of infection. Women are at a greater risk as the virus transmission occurs more easily from men to women than vice versa.
Most people are unaware of infection as there may be no symptoms or very mild symptoms that go unnoticed. An outbreak usually occurs between 2 days to 2 weeks after infection and the first episode is the most severe. The initial symptoms are pain and itching due to inflammation. Several days later, red bumps and blisters filled with pus appear in the infected regions which develop into bleeding ulcers. These sores are generally found :
- inside the vagina, cervix, inner thighs, buttocks and anus in women,
- on and around the penis, scrotum, inside the urethra, buttocks, inner thighs and anus in men,
- skin on any other part of the body that came in contact with an infected person.
Symptoms of the flu like fever, headaches, muscle pain and swelling in the groin may also be associated with the genital symptoms listed above. Ulcers in the urinary tract make urination painful. In women, they can cause vaginal discharge, occasionally leading to difficulty in urinating. The ulcers eventually heal around 7 to 14 days later, after which scabs form.
Skin-to skin contact with an infected individual, particularly during sexual intercourse is the primary cause of genital herpes. Oral sex leads to the transmission of HSV-1 to genitals. HSV transmission does not happen upon contact with clothing and other materials used by the infected person because the virus cannot survive outside the body.
Once contracted, the virus stays dormant in the body and can be reactivated causing an outbreak. This can be triggered by :
- Stress – physical or psychological
- Irritation of the affected skin
The frequency of acute episodes may vary from person-to-person.
Using latex condoms during sexual intercourse and avoiding multiple sexual partners can help to prevent genital herpes. The presence of HSV is diagnosed by blood tests to detect circulating anti-HSV antibodies, polymerase chain reaction (PCR) from the sore tissue and virus culture from the sore.
Affected individuals are treated with anti-viral medications such as acyclovir, valacyclovir and famciclovir. These drugs provide pain-relief and accelerate the healing of the blisters. Patients experiencing frequent outbreaks may be advised to consume these medications daily over a period of time.
Pregnant women who get an HSV infection or an outbreak during gestation are treated with these anti-viral medications and advised to have a C-section to reduce the chances of transmission to the newborn. It is important to note that genital herpes is incurable and medical treatment solely aims to ease the intensity of symptoms.