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What is Genital Herpes?

Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted infection (STI). It can cause painful sores on and around the genital area. Currently, there is no cure for genital herpes; however, medications can help ease the symptoms.

Herpes simplex virus, the virus that causes genital herpes, belongs to the same family of viruses that cause cold sores, chickenpox and shingles. Genital herpes can be transmitted sexually (vaginal, anal or oral sex) even if the infected person has no open sores or other symptoms of infection. Rarely, pregnant women can pass the infection onto their babies during or after birth. Having safer sex can help reduce the risk of getting or transmitting the infection.

Symptoms of Genital Herpes

Many people with genital herpes are unaware that they have the virus because they have few or no symptoms, or mistake the symptoms for other conditions such as yeast infections or allergic reactions to detergents. The only way to be sure whether or not you have genital herpes is to be tested.

Individuals with symptoms may experience a tingling sensation or itching in the genital area within two to twenty days of having sex with an infected person. A cluster of blisters may show up, which can burst and leave painful sores (often lasting two to three weeks). Other symptoms such as fever, headache and muscular pain may occur during the first attack.

After the sores heal from the first attack, the virus goes into a dormant stage but outbreaks can occur. Some people have only one or two recurrences in a lifetime, while others have them more frequently. Recurrences are generally shorter in duration and less severe than the first attack. Stress can play a role in the frequency and severity of the outbreaks. Please note that herpes can continue to be transmitted to others, even between recurrences when the infected person has no symptoms.

Women’s symptoms can include the following:

  • Sores inside or near the vagina, the cervix, on the external genitals, near the anus or on the thighs or buttocks; and
  • Tender lumps in the groin area (lymphadenopathy).

Men’s symptoms can include the following:

  • Sores on the penis, around the testicles, near the anus or on the thighs or buttocks; and
  • Tender lumps in the groin area (lymphadenopathy).

In both sexes, the sores will usually occur at or near the site where the virus was transmitted.

The Health Risks of Genital Herpes

The main health effects of genital herpes consist of pain and discomfort, but the virus can also cause emotional and social problems. There are several antiviral drugs available to help prevent outbreaks and minimize the severity of the infection.

Transmission of the herpes simplex virus from an infected mother to her child during pregnancy or birth is rare. However, herpes infection can be life-threatening to the child; in some cases it may result in brain damage or skin lesions.

Minimizing Your Risk

The following suggestions can help protect you from contracting genital herpes.

  • Practice safer sex methods;
  • Talk to your partner(s) about their STI status and the use of protection;
  • Avoid having any sex when skin sores are present;
  • If you have had multiple sexual partners, test yourself for genital herpes and other STIs.

If you think you may have genital herpes:

  • See your doctor as soon as possible. The doctor can prescribe medications to help ease the pain of the attack and control further attacks;
  • If a diagnosis is confirmed, keep the infected area clean and dry;
  • Inform your sex partner(s) of your infection so they are aware of the risk of infection.
  • Couples where one partner is infected may benefit from counseling regarding the pros and cons of continuous condom use from a health care provider;
  • Wear loose fitting clothing made of natural materials such as cotton to help ease symptoms;
  • Do not have sex until the sores have healed; and
  • Always use a condom when having sex, even if you have no symptoms.

Source: Health Canada