Genital Herpes: What Is It?
Herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) causes genital herpes. HSV-1 is transmitted through sexual contact with someone infected with HSV-1. There are two types of HSV-1: Type 1a and Type 1b. Both types cause genital herpes, but only one type affects most people at any given time.
Type 1a HSV-1 causes genital herpes. Most people have both types of HSV-1 in their body at some point during their lives. However, there are times when only one type becomes active or latent, causing symptoms such as cold sores and itching. People with Type 1a infections may not experience any symptoms at all, but they do transmit the infection to others.
People with Type 1b infections usually develop genital herpes within 2 years after first becoming infected. They will typically develop genital lesions over time, although it can take longer if the disease progresses quickly. If left untreated, Type 1b infections can lead to death.
How Do You Get Genital Herpes?
Genital herpes is a sexually-transmitted disease (STD). Genital herpes is spread through contact with a herpes lesion or body fluid from someone who has the disease. Your risk of getting genital herpes is highest if you have vaginal, rectal, or penile contact with someone who has herpes.
Herpes can be transmitted even if the person does not have any visible sores or symptoms. The first time you have unprotected contact with someone who has the virus, there is a small chance you could become infected. This is because the virus may be active on parts of the body, such as the buttocks, that you might not be exposed to during sexual contact.
If you have genital herpes and engage in unprotected vaginal, rectal, or penile contact with someone who does not have the virus, you can transmit it to them. Even if the infection does not show any symptoms, it still exists in your system and can be spread to others.
What Are the Symptoms of Herpes?
HSV-1 typically causes cold sores around the mouth, most typically appearing on the lips. The sores are often painful and fluid-filled. They may also cause a fever. You might also experience pain when urinating and find the area around the urethra is irritated or itchy.
HSV-2 is most typically found in the genital area, however, it can also cause sores to appear around the buttocks. These sores may be small or large, painful or painless. You might also experience itching or tingling around the infected area, especially when the virus begins to flare up again.
When you first become infected with genital herpes, you may not experience any symptoms at all for weeks or even months after infection. Your first herpes outbreak normally occurs within two weeks of becoming infected with the virus, although it can occur as quickly as within a day or as long as several months after infection.
How Is Genital Herpes Diagnosed?
Your medical provider will ask you about your medical history and perform a physical examination. Your medical provider may also request a blood test to confirm your herpes infection and rule out other conditions such as other STDs and general infections.
How Is It Treated?
Treatments for genital herpes aim at relieving the symptoms. There is currently no cure for genital herpes. Antiviral drugs can reduce the appearance of herpes and how long the virus is infectious to others.
Your medical provider may prescribe:
Can Herpes Be Prevented?
The only way to prevent getting genital herpes is by avoiding contact with someone who has or recently had an outbreak. This means you should steer clear of anyone who has cold sores around their mouth. You should also avoid having vaginal, rectal, or penile contact with someone who has a herpes lesion in their genital area.
If you think that you have come into contact with someone who may have a herpes infection, it is important to prevent future outbreaks by taking an antiviral drug as soon as possible. This will short out the virus and prevent an outbreak from occurring.
How Can I Reduce My Risk?
There are a few things you can do to lower your chances of getting genital herpes or passing it on to someone else. The best thing you can do is talk to prospective partners about your STD status. This may be difficult for some people, but if both you and your partner are open and honest about your sexual histories you can discover the risk factors together.
If you are positive for herpes, it is best to avoid having vaginal, rectal or penile contact with someone who has a herpes lesion in their genital area. You should also avoid having contact with a herpes sore if possible, as the virus can easily be spread from skin to skin contact.
You should also speak to your doctor about taking antiviral medication when you first have warning signs of an outbreak. This shortens the length of the outbreak and lessens the chance of spreading the virus to others.
In addition, you may consider using condoms when having sexual contact with new partners, as genital herpes can be spread even when no sores are present.
It is also important to avoid having contact with someone who has cold sores around their mouth. Most people are unaware that they have genital herpes, so asking your potential partner if they have ever had a cold sore is not the best way to find out if they are infected. The virus can be spread from skin to skin contact, even when no herpes sores are present.
What If I Think I Have Herpes?
If you think you have genital herpes, it is important to see your medical provider for testing and treatment. It is also a good idea to inform any current or new partner of your STD status so that they can take the necessary precautions.
Remember, you can take steps to reduce the risk of spreading genital herpes through skin to skin contact. Using condoms is still the best way to reduce your chances of spreading or contracting STDs. Even if no herpes sores are present, you can still spread the virus to your partner’s skin.
STDs are rarely reported, so it is also important that you take charge of your own sexual health. Don’t be afraid to get tested and discuss your sexual history with a medical provider. It is better to know your risk so that you can reduce the chances of spreading or contracting a STD.
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The best way to prevent getting a STD is to not have vaginal, penile, or genital contact with someone who has a STD. This seems obvious but many people forget about this one key fact.
A common misconception is that you can not get an STD if your genitals are not in contact with someone who has the STD. This is absolutely false. The virus (or more commonly bacteria) can easily be spread from skin to skin contact.
For example, if you have genital herpes, and you rub your mouth or touch another part of your body, then the virus has a route to infect another person or yourself. This is what causes cold sores on the mouth or blisters on the hands. This also means that if you have a cut in your genitals or even just irritated skin, then you are more susceptible to contracting an STD.
Using condoms is helpful in preventing STIs from skin to skin contact. It is not a guarantee, but it does help. In addition, it offers some protection against pregnancy.
Trichomoniasis is a common STD that most people have no symptoms for. Such as chlamydia or gonorrhea, it can spread through skin to skin contact. Using a latex barrier such as a male or female condoms can help prevent the spread of the disease.
Dental dams also act as an effective barrier against STIs that are spread through skin to skin contact such as herpes or HPV.
Condoms and dental dams are only effective if used correctly. If you have any cuts, abrasions, or open sores on or around your genitals, you should not be having sexual contact until the area is fully healed.
This means any skin to skin contact that involves blood or fluids. This includes kissing, licking, ejaculating into an object and then putting it in your mouth, and many other acts.
The most important step to preventing STIs is getting tested. While it may be embarrassing or you may not want to think about it, you will know your risk and can take preventative measures or seek treatment if necessary.
Condoms are an important tool in preventing the spread of STIs, but remember that they are only effective when used correctly.
Condoms will not fully protect you from all STIs. For example, HPV is the most common STD and it is primarily spread through skin to skin contact. Wearing a male or female latex condoms can help reduce your risk of transmission, but there is still a chance that the virus can spread from skin on skin contact.
The only way to be fully protected is to abstain from having sexual contact with another person who is infected. As long as you are having sexual contact with someone, there is always a risk.
Even if you and your partner have no signs or symptoms of an STI, you can still infect each other. It takes a while for some STIs to show signs or symptoms (such as HPV).
It is important to note that your body can have a reaction to an STI even if you don’t see any signs or symptoms. Even a brand new infection can cause the infected area to appear normal.
While it is best to receive treatment as soon as possible, there are steps you can take to protect your partner before going to the doctor.
If you have a bacterial or viral infection, abstain from any sexual contact until at least a week after the infected area shows signs of improvement and has been declared cleared by a medical professional.
If you have symptoms of a fungal infection, abstain from contact until a medical professional has given you the green light.
Once you have been cleared by a medical professional, you can take steps to protect your partners. For example, if you have a genital HPV infection, using a male or female latex condoms can help prevent your partner from being infected.
If you have a yeast infection, wearing clothes (especially underwear) that breathe and cleaning the infected area can help prevent skin to skin contact.
If you have a rash or hives on any part of your body, you can use an anti-histamine cream to reduce itching.
There are steps you can take to prevent the spread of an STI, but they won’t always be effective. There is always a risk in having sexual contact with another human even if they show no signs or symptoms of an infection.
You should always seek immediate medical attention if you think you have an STI. Your doctor will run some tests to confirm your suspicion.
Some STIs (such as genital warts or HPV for example) will not show signs or symptoms until weeks or months after being infected.
A common misconception is that if a person has no symptoms, you cannot pass on the infection to another person. This is patently false.
Far too many people believe that STIs only spread if an infected person shows signs or symptoms. This could not be further from the truth.
It is important to remember that there is no shame in going to your doctor for an STI test. They are highly trained professionals who deal with this sort of thing on a daily basis.
While STIs can certainly be a cause for concern, you can easily take steps to either prevent their spread or treat them. It is essential that you keep an open mind and don’t do anything you aren’t comfortable with.
You should always speak with your partner(s) and tell them if you have any concerns. No matter what you decide to do, it is important that you have fun in all your sexual adventures!
Take care of yourself and have fun!
Health and happiness,
O.P. Poindexter, M.D.
is a practicing physician in the New Orleans area. He currently runs his own private practice and also holds a teaching position at the local university medical school. He is an expert in his field and likes to write informative pieces on health and wellness.
No records exist of him before his work at the New Orleans General Hospital. There are rumors that he is much older than he appears, but this has never been proven.
He has a good reputation among his fellow doctors and patients who appreciate his directness and honesty. His work with the poor is what inspired him to create this online advice column.
He has no known family and claims to have no time for a personal life.
“Medical degree, shmedical degree, if you’ve got a problem just write to me!”
Sources & references used in this article:
Genital herpes by R Gupta, T Warren, A Wald – The Lancet, 2007 – Elsevier
Glycoprotein-D–adjuvant vaccine to prevent genital herpes by LR Stanberry, SL Spruance… – … England Journal of …, 2002 – Mass Medical Soc
Genital herpes simplex virus infections: clinical manifestations, course, and complications by L Corey, HG Adams, ZA Brown… – Annals of internal …, 1983 – acpjournals.org
Genital herpes and public health: addressing a global problem by L Corey, HH Handsfield – Jama, 2000 – jamanetwork.com