Genital herpes is a highly contagious sexually transmitted disease. The cause is a strain of the herpes simplex virus (HSV). This virus enters your body through small breaks in your skin or mucous membranes.
What is it?
The illness is characterized by pain, itching and sores in your genital area. Sexual contact is the primary way that genital HSV spreads. It's almost impossible to get the infection through contact with toilets, towels or other objects used by an infected person, because the virus dies quickly outside the body.
In the past 10 years, the number of people in the United States who are infected with HSV has decreased. However, genital herpes is still common. According to researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, HSV is present in as many as one in six teens and adults in the U.S.
HSV affects both men and women. There's no cure for this recurrent (chronic) infection, which may cause embarrassment and emotional distress. Having genital herpes is no reason to avoid sex or give up on relationships though. If you or your partner is infected, you can manage the spread of HSV by taking steps to protect yourself and your partner. Open communication with your partner or potential partner is important.
What causes it?
Two types of herpes simplex virus infections can cause genital herpes. HSV type 1 (HSV-1) is the type that usually causes cold sores or fever blisters around your mouth, though it can be spread to your genital area during oral sex. HSV type 2 (HSV-2) is the type that commonly causes genital herpes. The virus spreads through sexual contact and skin-to-skin contact. HSV-2 is very common and highly contagious whether you have an open sore or not. However, in many people the infection causes no recognized signs or symptoms and can still be spread to a sexual partner.
What are the symptoms?
Many people who've been infected with HSV never know they have the disease because they have no signs or symptoms. The signs and symptoms of HSV can be so mild they go unnoticed. About half of those infected with HSV have only one outbreak in their lifetimes.
When present, signs and symptoms of genital herpes may include:
- Small, red bumps, blisters (vesicles) or open sores (ulcers).
- Pain or itching around your genital area, buttocks or inner thighs.
The initial symptom of genital herpes usually is pain or itching, beginning two to 10 days after exposure to an infected sexual partner. After several days, small, red bumps may appear. They then rupture, becoming ulcers that ooze or bleed. After three to four days, scabs form and the ulcers heal.
In women, sores can erupt in the vaginal area, external genitals, buttocks, anus or cervix. In men, sores can appear on the penis, scrotum, buttocks, anus or thighs or inside the urethra, the channel between the bladder and the penis.
Are there any natural therapies?
There's no cure for genital herpes. However, zinc and vitamin C help skin healing, and the amino acid L-lysine found in cold sore formulations help to reduce the frequency and severity of herpes attacks.
What else can I do?
If you have an active infection:
- Avoid having sex.
- Keep the sores clean and dry.
- Avoid touching the sores, and wash your hands after contact with sores.
Remember that the virus can spread even when no symptoms are present. Wait until all sores are completely healed before resuming sexual activity, and always use latex condoms to reduce the chances that you'll infect your partner.
Did you know?
In healthy adults, genital herpes generally doesn't cause other serious permanent complications besides the sores. However, people with weakened immune systems may have more severe and longer lasting outbreaks. Having genital herpes can increase the risk of transmitting or contracting other sexually transmitted diseases, including the AIDS virus.