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Genital Herpes Overview

Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by HSV (herpes simplex virus). This STI spreads primarily through sexual contact. The herpes simplex virus can lay dormant in your system after the initial infection and may reactivate several times a year.

Genital herpes can be painful, causing sores and itching in your genital area. Those infected by HSV are contagious, even if they do not display any visible symptoms. There is no cure for genital herpes. However, many medications are available to relieve symptoms and reduce the risk of spreading the virus.

Symptoms of Genital Herpes

Many people with genital herpes do not know they have been infected. This is because genital herpes does not usually cause symptoms. Even if symptoms do occur, they are typically mild and often go unnoticed. But every case is different, and many of those affected do show symptoms. Symptoms of genital herpes may begin roughly two to 12 days after exposure to HSV. They include:

  • Pain, itching, and tenderness in the genital area
  • Small red bumps and white blisters
  • Ulcers when the blisters rupture, ooze, or bleed
  • Scabs when the skin crusts over and the ulcers heal

Initially, genital herpes may cause flu-like symptoms like swollen lymph nodes, headache, muscle ache, and fever. Genital herpes can cause sores, and these sores usually appear where the infection entered your body but can also spread to different areas through touch.

Common areas that sores may affect men include the penis and the scrotum, whereas women are typically affected in the vaginal area and cervix. Both men and women may be affected in the buttocks, thigh, mouth, urethra, and anus.

What Causes Genital Herpes?

As mentioned above, the herpes simplex virus is responsible for genital herpes. However, there are two types of HSV:

HSV-1. This type of HSV is spread through skin-to-skin contact and typically causes cold sores and fever blisters in your mouth. Recurrences may occur, but they are not as frequent as recurrences with HSV-2.

HSV-2. This is the main type of HSV that is responsible for genital herpes. HSV-2 spreads through sexual and skin-to-skin contact so it is highly contagious, even if an open sore is not present.

Infections generally occur through human contact and not contact with objects used by an infected person. Even if you use a toilet or towel previously touched by an infected person, your chances of getting genital herpes are slim. This is because the virus dies quickly outside the body. Nevertheless, you should still avoid sharing personal items to reduce your risk.

Complications & Pregnancy Precautions

Genital herpes may lead to several health complications if left untreated. For example, having genital sores can increase your risk of contracting other STIs, including AIDS. Other complications include:

Bladder problems. Sores caused by genital herpes can sometimes cause inflammation around the urethra. The urethra connects to the bladder and is responsible for carrying urine out of the body. Inflammation in this area can cause swelling, which can close the urethra for several days. This bladder problem requires the insertion of a catheter to assist you when you need to urinate.

Meningitis. Although rare, genital herpes can lead to inflammation of the membranes and cerebrospinal fluid surrounding the brain and spinal cord. Meningitis can result in symptoms like headache, fever, and a stiff neck. This type of infection can lead to serious complications, so see a doctor as soon as possible if you suspect you have developed meningitis.

Rectal inflammation. Genital herpes can lead to the lining of the rectum getting inflamed. This complication is especially prevalent in men who have sex with men. Rectal inflammation is also known as proctitis.

Another complication that may occur is infection of a newborn baby. If the mother is exposed to HSV during the birthing process, the baby may be infected. Newborn infections can cause blindness, brain damage, and even death. Because newborn infections have serious implications, you should tell your doctor if you are pregnant and have genital herpes.

It is imperative to prevent an outbreak around the time of delivery, so your doctor may prescribe an antiviral medication. If an outbreak occurs during labor, your doctor may suggest a cesarean section to reduce the risk of a newborn infection.

Preventing Genital Herpes

Using or having your partner use a condom during sexual activity can reduce the risk of transmission. You should also avoid sexual intercourse if you or your partner experience an outbreak of genital herpes. The only proven way to prevent genital herpes is to abstain from sexual activity or limit sexual relationships to one person that does not have herpes. If you are concerned about the herpes simplex virus or any genital herpes symptoms, contact your physician today.