What is genital herpes?
Genital Herpes is a common sexually transmitted infection (STI), experienced by many. It is caused by the Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV) and is highly contagious; can be passed on easily through intimate contact, such as during sexual activities.
It is a chronic condition, once infected the virus remains in your body indefinitely and cam become active again due to certain triggers, resulting in recurrent infections as frequently as four or five time in the first two years of being infected. It causes painful blisters in the genital and surrounding areas, gradually becoming less severe with each time.
It is a common condition especially in people aged between 20 to 24, and atleast eight out of ten people who have it are unaware, due to the lack of any initial symptoms. The condition can be treated and managed with antivirals, prescribed according to the type and severity.
The Herpes Simplex Virus doesn’t always cause symptoms when first infected, as a result of which many people remain unaware of having Herpes. Symptoms usually don't appear until months after being exposed to the virus.
Due to the virus remaining in your body for life, once contracted, there are almost always recurrent episodes. Symptoms are most severe the first time round and gradually decrease.
Symptoms for the first time may last up to 20 days, eventually scanning and healing. These include;
- Small blisters that burst leaving red, open sores around your genitals, thighs and buttocks.
- Blisters and ulcers on the cervix in women
- Pain when you pass urine
- Unusual vaginal discharge in women
- General feeling of being unwell
Once the initial symptoms clear up, the virus become inactive, and may be reactivated from time to time causing recurrent outbreaks. These are shorter and less severe due to antibodies that have been produced the first time round. These include;
- A tingling, burning or itching sensation around your genital, and sometimes down your leg
- Blisters and ulcers on the cervix in women
- Painful blisters that soon burst leaving sores around your genitals, thighs and buttocks.
Genital herpes is caused by the Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV). It is extremely contagious and spreads from person to person through close skin contact, such as during penetrative or oral sex.
There are two types of HSV; HSV 1 and HSV 2. Genital herpes can be caused by both type 1 and type 2.
The virus can pass easily pass through the moist skin that lines the genitals, anus and mouth, making it easy to pass on to another. It cannot usually be passed through objects used commonly, however sharing sex toys can pose a risk. It is especially easy to catch the virus if you have open blisters or sores, and can also be caught from someone displaying no symptoms of it at all.
Once infected, it remains in your nerves forever, and can be triggered causing recurrence. Triggers for reactivating the virus include;
- Friction in your genital area during intercourse
- Drinking in excess
- A weakened immune system
- Being unwell
Additionally, you are at a higher risk of contracting the virus and other sexually transmitted infections if you have had an STI before, started having sex at a young age and have unprotected sex with multiple partners.
Genital herpes are easier to diagnose when the virus is still active, therefore you should seek medical attention as soon as you develop symptoms.
If you are experiencing genital herpes for the first time, you should visit your GP or local sexual health clinic for a formal diagnosis.
You may be asked about your symptoms, a history of cold sores, which is also caused by the same virus, whether you’ve had an STI before and about your sexual partners.
Fluid from a blister may be collected with a swab and sent to be tested for the HSV. You may also be screened for other STIs through a blood test.
Treatment for genital herpes depends on whether it's the first time or a recurrent outbreak.
For a primary infection, we can prescribe antiviral tablets such as Aciclovir. It works by preventing HSV from multiplying, but it cannot clear the virus from your body completely. You will need to complete the treatment, especially if you are still seeing new blisters and sores form. Additionally, we also prescribe other antivirals such as Famciclovir, Famvir.
To treat recurrent outbreaks, home remedies are often enough in the case of milder symptoms. But for more severe outbreaks, Aciclovir can be prescribed.