Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted disease that is caused by viral infection. Patients can be infected with either the herpes simplex virus type 1, also known as HSV-1 or herpes simplex virus type 2, or HSV-2. There are currently over 50 million people infected with genital herpes in the United States. Because the symptoms of herpes are often mild, people may be unaware that they have the infection or mistake it for something else. This long-term infection often causes sores or blisters on the mouth, lips, genitals or rectum.
Causes of Genital Herpes
Genital herpes is transmitted by engaging in oral, vaginal or anal sex with an infected partner. Genital herpes is spread by exposure to an affected area of skin with or without lesions or secretions.
Symptoms of Genital Herpes
Most patients affected with genital herpes experience little to no symptoms from this condition. When symptoms do occur, they often involve one or more blisters on or around the mouth or genital area. These outbreaks usually come and go over the course of many months or years, but the infection remains present in the body. Symptoms of genital herpes may include:
- Sores on the mouth or lips
- Sores or blisters on the genitals or anus
- Body aches
- Infection of the eye
- Swollen glands
Outbreaks of genital herpes may occur four to five times during the first year of infection, but tend to decrease in frequency and severity over time.
Diagnosis of Genital Herpes
A doctor can diagnose genital herpes by examining active sores and taking a small sample to be analyzed in a lab. If patients are not experiencing any symptoms or are in between outbreaks, a diagnostic blood test or viral culture may be performed to confirm diagnosis.
Treatment of Genital Herpes
While there is no cure for herpes, there are several treatment options available to relieve symptoms and reduce emotional distress. Antiviral medications can often help shorten or prevent outbreaks from occurring. Oral medications prescribed to treat genital herpes may include:
These antiviral medications are usually taken only when patients are experiencing symptoms, although they may be taken on a more regular basis to stop outbreaks from occurring. Patients with regular symptoms from herpes may benefit from daily suppressive therapy to reduce their risk of spreading the infection to their sexual partner.
Complications of Genital Herpes
In some patients, herpes infections can cause extremely painful genital sores that may interfere with the patient's everyday life. Symptoms are usually most severe in patients with suppressed immune systems. Patients with genital herpes may be more susceptible to HIV infection and contracting other sexually transmitted diseases.
Pregnant women, with genital herpes, may be at risk for infecting their baby with the disease, especially if herpes is contracted during the pregnancy. If an infection is active at the time of delivery, a cesarean delivery may be performed to reduce the baby's risk of infection. In rare cases, if a woman has an active herpes infection during a vaginal delivery, the herpes infection may cause brain damage or eye infections in the newborn.
Prevention of Genital Herpes
Prevention of genital herpes may be achieved through:
- Abstaining from sexual activity
- Using condoms
- Remaining in a monogamous relationship
Both male and female condoms can reduce the risk of developing herpes, but are not a prevention method. It is important to notify any sexual partners of a genital herpes infection in order to prevent infecting others, and all sexual activity should be avoided during an outbreak. Open communication with a partner is an effective way to maintain a healthy sex life.
For most patients, genital herpes does not lead to any serious conditions, and instead remains a long-term manageable condition.