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Updated 06 August 2016

7 facts about genital herpes

Genital herpes might not kill you, but once you're infected, there's no getting rid of it. Here are seven facts you need to know about the disease.

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In the early eighties, just before HIV/Aids hit the headlines and made every other STI pale by comparison, the word on everyone’s lips was (genital) herpes.

Still a serious condition

Herpes caught everyone’s attention because, “unlike true love, it was forever”, meaning that once you had it, it would remain in your system forever, and periodic outbreaks were virtually a done deal.  

But the fact that genital herpes is currently out of the public eye doesn’t mean that it is no longer a matter of concern. It's still a serious condition that warrants care and attention.  

Read: 1 in 4 has genital herpes: NY

Genital herpes is very common, and according to Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, in the US, about one out of every six people aged 14 to 49 years has genital herpes.

Facts about genital herpes:

1. Genital herpes is caused by a virus called herpes simplex type 2 (HSV-2).  

There are eight known types of herpes viruses, but probably the best known are Human Herpes Virus 1, 2 and 3, causing cold sores; lesions around the genital area; and chickenpox and shingles respectively.

2. Genital herpes is serious. Besides being humiliating and embarrassing, sores can infect other parts of the body if an infected person touches a genital sore and then another body part, e.g. the eyes. Infected women have a high risk of passing the disease to their babies, who can die from herpes.

Read: Herpes-infected woman wins lawsuit

The biggest concern, however, is that herpes eventually weakens the immune system and puts victims at higher risk of diseases like meningitis, hepatitis, and other STIs, including Aids. Herpes also puts women at greater risk for cervical cancer.

3. Genital herpes is spread by physical contact with an infected person. It is most commonly spread by sexual intercourse and oral sex, but it can be spread by any kind of skin-to-skin contact.

According to emedicinehealth people may spread genital herpes even when they don’t know they are infected. Herpes can also be transmitted even when the disease seems to be inactive and there are no visible lesions.

4. The symptoms of genital herpes can vary greatly and it is best to have lesions of any kind tested. After being infected it can take days or even years before symptoms become apparent. The first outbreak can also be so mild as to pass virtually unnoticed.

NHS Choices distinguishes between symptoms caused by primary infection and recurrent outbreaks:

Primary infection

  • Small blisters that burst, leaving open sores around the genitals, anus rectum, thighs and buttocks
  • Blisters and ulcers on the cervix in women
  • Vaginal discharge
  • Pain when urinating
  • General malaise with flu-like symptoms

Recurrent outbreaks

Symptoms of a recurrent outbreak are similar to the primary outbreak, but because your body now recognises the virus and mounts an immune response, they are usually shorter and less severe and may include:

  • Tingling, burning or itching around the genitals, and even down the leg preceding the appearance of blisters 
  • Blisters that leave sores around the pelvic area
  • Some blistering and ulcers on the cervix

The symptoms of genital herpes usually take about a month to clear up.

5. Herpes is for life. Once you have herpes, you can't ever get rid of it. (A blood test by a health professional will reveal if you are infected. Fluids taken from lesions can also be tested for the herpes virus.) 

Even though symptoms disappear, the virus remains dormant in a nearby nerve. The virus may be reactivated from time to time, usually caused by some kind of stress, and travels back down the nerve to your skin, causing a new outbreak.

Read: New discovery may lead to herpes vaccine

6. Herpes can be treated. Although herpes won’t disappear, there are medications that make outbreaks less severe. WebMD states that antiviral drugs can help sufferers of genital herpes stay symptom-free for longer and reduce the severity and duration of symptoms when they do occur.

The three drugs mainly used to treat genital herpes are acyclovir (Zovirax), famiclovir (Famvir), and valacyclovir (Valtrex). 

7. Contracting genital herpes can be avoided by:

  • Staying celibate
  • Monogamy or limiting number of sexual partners
  • Using condoms
  • Avoiding sex with people with sores on their genitals (or anywhere else)
  • Having partner/s tested for genital herpes

Read more:

Genital herpes more virulent in Africa

Experimental drug offers hope for genital herpes

Sex gel stops herpes

References:

Baseline of Health:Herpes Can Spread Silently. https://jonbarron.org/article/herpes-can-spread-silently

American sexual Health Association:Herpes Signs and Symptoms. http://www.ashasexualhealth.org/stdsstis/herpes/signs-symptoms/

Happy with Herpes: How Many Types of Herpes Are There? http://www.happy-with-herpes.com/types-of-herpes.html

WebMD: 10 Ways to Reduce the Risk for Genital Herpes. http://www.webmd.com/genital-herpes/guide/reduce-risk

 

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