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Genital herpes

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What is genital herpes?

Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by the herpes simplex virus. There are two types of herpes, they are known as herpes simplex virus type 1 (H.S.V.1) and type 2 (H.S.V.2). Type 1 most commonly affects the lips and mouth, they usually appear as coldsores. Type 2 generally affects the genital and anal area. Genital herpes always used to be caused by type 2 but as more people are having oral sex, type 1 is also becoming common in the genital and anal area. These viruses are essentially identical and are caused by the same virus.

The word herpes comes from the Greek and means to creep. The herpes simplex virus is one of mankind’s most common infections, in fact it was known in Roman times when kissing was banned for a time. It is even believed to have been mentioned by Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet.

A large number of the adult population carry this virus and once infected the virus remains dormant within the individual for life, though it may occasionally become active again (recurrence).

How is genital herpes passed on?

Herpes is very contagious and is passed on through skin contact with an infected person’s sores or blisters. The virus will then affect the area where it enters the body, for example, if you have oral sex with someone who has a coldsore on their mouth, you are in danger of catching genital herpes. The virus can be passed on in the following ways:

  • Kissing.
  • Vaginal sex.
  • Oral sex.
  • Sharing sex toys.
  • Anal sex.
  • Hand transfer (e.g. masturbation).

The virus is highly infectious when sores and blisters are present, the risk of you passing the infection on or catching the infection between episodes is much lower. However, on rare occasions the virus can be passed on when no sores or blisters are present.

What can I do to avoid catching genital herpes?

  • Do not kiss a partner when they have coldsores around the mouth.
  • Avoid oral sex when a partner has mouth or genital sores.
  • Even with a condom genital or anal sex should be avoided when genital sores are present.
  • Never use saliva to wet contact lenses, if you have sores around your mouth.
  • Always wash your hands thoroughly before and after touching the affected area.

What are the signs and symptoms?

Most people who get herpes will be unaware and have no visible symptoms. Symptoms when they occur can develop within 4-5days after being exposed or can be in the body for months or even years after first exposure. When a person has herpes for the first time, known as a primary infection, the symptoms are usually more severe than what they will be if it happens to reoccur. These symptoms can include:

  • Itching or tingling on or around the penis, vagina or anus area. Normally an early sign a blister may appear.
  • Small fluid-filled blisters in the genital or anal area. These blisters will burst within 1-2 days leaving red sores.
  • Pain on passing urine, especially for women, when the urine passes the infected area.
  • Flu like symptoms – fever, backache and headache.
  • Swollen glands in the groin area.

How is genital herpes diagnosed?

If you believe you have any form of genital herpes visit your local G.U.M. clinic for advice and treatment. You can visit your doctor but they will more than likely refer you to a G.U.M. clinic. The doctor at the clinic will begin by asking about your symptoms and sexual partners. The doctor will normally be able to diagnose herpes by carrying out an examination of your genital area, he/she will usually take a sample from any visible sores to confirm the diagnosis. You will probably be offered tests for other STI’s and be asked to give a urine sample and possibly a blood test.

What treatment is available for genital herpes?

There is no cure for genital herpes but there are antiviral tablets available known as aciclovir, this can be prescribed to prevent the virus from multiplying, reduce the severity of symptoms and shortening the length of outbreak. Treatment is not essential, as genital herpes will clear up by itself. There are a number of things you can do yourself to relieve symptoms, they include the following:

  • Take pain-killers like paracetamol if you have any pain.
  • Gently bathe the infected area in salt water, twice a day.
  • Avoid tight clothing, so air can get to the sores.
  • Drink plenty of fluids, to help neutralize the urine making passing water less painful.
  • Pour water over your genitals as you wee to ease the pain.
  • Avoid sunbathing and sunbeds, especially if you have sores on your mouth.
  • If you have a fever, stay in bed and get plenty of rest.

There is no long-term cure at present for genital herpes, as the virus will remain in the body, though it may not show any symptoms. The frequency and severity of recurrent episodes varies greatly, while some people may only have one or 2 recurrences in a life time, others may have several outbreaks a year. If you suffer frequent or severe recurrences of herpes, it may be advisable to take antiviral tablets to prevent symptoms developing.

How can I avoid further attacks of genital herpes?

Some people never get another outbreak. If you do get another outbreak the symptoms are usually milder. There may be no obvious cause as to why you have got a repeat infection. However, you can develop a repeat infection due to the following:

  • Stress and feeling run down.
  • Damage to the genital area by friction during sex or from surgery.
  • Wearing tight clothing.
  • Weakened immune system.
  • Direct sunlight or sunlamp rays.

Always use a condom for sex, including oral sex to avoid catching herpes and other sexually transmitted diseases.

What are the effects of genital herpes?

Having herpes does not affect a woman’s ability to have children but can cause your baby serious health problems, fortunately this is quite rare. Herpes can be passed on to a baby around the time of birth, this is called neonatal herpes. If you develop herpes for the first time in the last weeks of pregnancy or have an outbreak at the time of labour then your doctor might recommend a caesarean section. Herpes does not cause cervical cancer.

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