Herpes is a highly contagious virus known as the herpes simplex virus type 1 and type 2. Both types of the herpes virus can cause cold sores or genital herpes and is spread through close skin-to-skin contact. Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted infection that can be passed through vaginal, anal or oral sex and causes blisters and sores to appear on the genitals or anus. Once caught, the herpes virus stays dormant in the body for life and you may experience recurrent outbreaks of blisters and sores.
Herpes is not curable but the symptoms can be managed. Antiviral medicines are prescribed to shorten the duration of outbreaks and ease the pain and discomfort caused by the virus. It’s important to get tested for genital herpes during an outbreak to ensure you get the right treatment to avoid complications.
“The herpes simplex virus is contagious and cannot be cured, but the symptoms can be managed if the condition is diagnosed. It’s so important to get tested for genital herpes if you’re showing symptoms so that you can receive the right treatment and prevent spreading it to other people. Antiviral medicines are the best way to control outbreaks and ease the unpleasant symptoms. Don’t be put off getting tested due to embarrassment, getting a diagnosis means you can manage symptoms and avoid serious complications of the virus.”
What is herpes?
Herpes, or more specifically genital herpes is a condition that develops from the herpes simplex virus and affects the skin. There are two types of herpes simplex virus, type 1 and type 2 and both affect the skin on the mouth or genitals. Both types of herpes cause blisters to appear on the skin, herpes type 1 (HSV-1) usually causes blisters of the mouth and is known as oral herpes or cold sores. Herpes type 2 usually affects the vagina, penis and anus, and is known as genital herpes. However, both types of herpes can affect both areas but each prefers a particular place to thrive. You can spread oral herpes to the genitals and genital herpes to the mouth. Once you catch the herpes simplex virus it stays in your body for life and you may have occasional outbreaks.
Symptoms of oral herpes include cold sores appearing around the mouth which are sore, pus-filled and itchy. Symptoms of genital herpes include:
- Small blisters and ulcers around the genitals, anus, thighs or buttocks
- Tingling, burning or itching around the genitals
- Pain when urinating
- Unusual vaginal discharge
- Fever and flu-like symptoms
- Muscle aches and pains
How is the herpes virus spread?
Herpes is very common and many people do not know they have it as they may not show any symptoms. It’s estimated that 75% of the population have the herpes virus and many of these will contract the virus from someone who does not have any sores. The herpes virus can live in the body for years and may not develop a single outbreak.
Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted infection that enters the body through mucous membranes which are found in the mouth and genitals. The virus is spread through bodily fluids, particularly through infected saliva, semen and vaginal secretions if it is genital herpes. Herpes can also be spread through close skin-to-skin contact such as kissing which is why you can contract genital herpes through having oral sex. Herpes can spread anywhere that has come into contact with the infection, it can even spread to the eyes.
Are there complications of the herpes virus?
In most cases the herpes virus is nothing to worry about particularly if it is a cold sore on the lips, although it does cause an unsightly appearance, embarrassment and discomfort. The herpes virus can cause other complications in rare cases.
Contracting genital herpes puts you at greater risk of contracting other STIs such as AIDS. People with weakened immune systems such as those with HIV or AIDS are more likely to experience complications of the herpes simplex virus so it’s important to be particularly careful around people with illnesses such as these as it could be potentially dangerous for them if they catch the virus.
Genital herpes can be particularly dangerous to newborn babies if they come into contact with the infection. This happens through the birthing process if the mother has genital herpes and gives birth naturally. Although this is rare it can happen and your doctor may decide that you need a cesarean if you have an outbreak of herpes. Herpes can be fatal for newborns and can cause blindness and brain damage.
Other complications that have been associated with herpes include sudden loss of hearing, encephalitis (infection of the brain), meningitis, and genital herpes can cause inflammation of the rectum.
When the herpes virus develops into a cold sore, the majority of the time there is no need to visit a doctor, however, genital herpes will need to be assessed by STI clinicians who are trained in all sexually transmitted infections and can diagnose your condition so that you receive the correct treatment and avoid complications of the infection.
How is genital herpes diagnosed?
Many people put off getting tested for sexually transmitted infections through embarrassment which puts them more at risk of developing complications. Getting tested doesn’t have to be embarrassing. Visiting an STI clinic is an easy and fast way of getting tested and diagnosed, and all of the doctors and nurses at these clinics are specially trained in sexually transmitted infections and are used to seeing a range of STIs on a daily basis so there is no need to be embarrassed.
At the sexual health clinic or at your GP surgery the doctor or nurse will ask about your symptoms and sexual partners. They will also need to test by taking a swab of fluid from one of the blisters or sores which is why you need to have visible symptoms to be tested for genital herpes. They will also advise you on how to tell your sexual partners to get tested for the same STI if you’re diagnosed with genital herpes. This can be done discreetly without letting them know you have the infection.
How to treat genital herpes
Unfortunately genital herpes cannot be cured as the herpes virus stays in your body for life, but there are ways of controlling the symptoms and shortening the duration of an outbreak. Antiviral medicine is usually prescribed to help shorten the duration of an outbreak by a couple of days and to help reduce the pain. For it to be effective, this medicine should be taken as soon as symptoms start to appear.
Aciclovir is a type of antiviral medicine which helps to control and prevent outbreaks by inhibiting the spread and development of the virus. It’s also used to prevent recurrent outbreaks of genital herpes and can be prescribed as a 3 month course. Other medicines for herpes include:
You should also maintain good body hygiene by keeping the infected area clean and dry, but you should only use mild soaps and cleanses that won’t irritate the skin. Avoid wearing tight clothing as this can cause further discomfort and pain.
How to prevent catching genital herpes
Prevention is always better than cure, particularly when it comes to sexually transmitted infections. Genital herpes is highly contagious and you should not have sex with anyone who has blisters or sores, and this applies to vaginal, anal or oral sex. Likewise you should also avoid having sex if you have a herpes outbreak or are showing the first signs of an outbreak. To prevent catching any type of STI you should always use a condom each time you have sex. However, if the condom doesn’t cover the infected area, herpes can still be passed on so it’s best to avoid sex altogether during an outbreak.
You should also not share sex toys to prevent the spread of the virus, and if you do always use a condom and wash them after each use. You should also reduce your number of sexual partners to reduce the spread and prevent catching an STI.
Can genital herpes return?
Yes, just like cold sores, outbreaks of genital herpes can be recurrent particularly when you’re run down or stressed. However, some people may not ever experience outbreaks despite having the herpes virus.
Outbreaks can return even after treatment and if you’re having recurrent outbreaks your GP may devise a treatment plan to help manage and prevent outbreaks. Keeping healthy, avoiding the triggers and practicing safe sex are all ways of preventing an outbreak of genital herpes.