Genital Herpes

By:    Published: May 22, 2012

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Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are often misunderstood. Many people have made false assumptions about these conditions based on inaccurate or incomplete information they’ve received over the years. However, it’s important to know the truth about STDs in order to protect both yourself and your partner. In this article, you’ll find the symptoms and causes of genital herpes, one of the most common STDs, along with how it can be prevented and treated.

Definition

Genital herpes is an STD that occurs when a person contracts the herpes simplex virus. There are two types of this virus: herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) and herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2). The majority of cases of genital herpes are caused by HSV-2. This particular type of the virus is widespread; according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about one in six people ages 14 to 49 have the HSV-2 virus.

The genital herpes virus is located in and released from sores caused by the virus. However, it may also be passed through skin that does not appear to have any sores. The misconception that many individuals have is that the virus can only be spread when a person is having an outbreak that causes visible sores. Unfortunately, many people contract the virus by having unprotected sexual contact with someone infected with the virus between outbreaks, thinking that they are safe from possible infection.

Symptoms

Most people first realize they have genital herpes when they see sores in their genital area. This is considered to be an outbreak of the virus, which may occur as seldom as once per year or so often that the symptoms are basically continuous. However, some people with the HSV-2 virus never get sores, so it’s important to understand the other symptoms associated with the disease, including:

  • Small, painful blisters filled with clear or straw-colored liquid. These may be found on the genital area, the anus, the thighs and the buttocks. In some cases, they may also appear on the tongue, mouth, gums, lips or fingers. These sores are often the worst during the first outbreak.
  • A tingling, burning or itchy feeling on the skin before blisters appear
  • Decreased appetite
  • Fever
  • Malaise
  • Muscle aches in the lower back, thighs, knees or buttocks
  • Swollen and tender lymph nodes in the groin area
  • Painful urination

It’s important to note that some of the people who never get sores from the virus also experience very mild symptoms, so they may never realize they have the disease unless they get tested.

Causes and Risk Factors

The cause of genital herpes is HSV-1 or HSV-2 (in most cases, it is HSV-2) that is spread through sexual contact. This is more likely to occur during an outbreak, but it can also be spread between outbreaks as well. Because of this, some people spread the virus before they even find out that they have the virus.

There are two main risk factors for the disease. Women are more likely to have genital herpes than men due to the fact that it is spread more easily from a man to a woman than from a woman to a man. Additionally, having many sexual partners can increase your risk for the disease since it is spread through sexual contact.

Prevention

The best way to prevent genital herpes is to abstain from sexual activity with someone who has visible sores, since this is the time when the disease is most transferrable. In addition, you should use a latex condom during sexual contact to prevent the spread of genital herpes even when no sores are present. It is also helpful to limit the number of sexual partners to reduce your risk for contracting the virus.

Women with genital herpes also need to tell their doctor if they become pregnant. Since the virus can be spread during delivery, these women may be instructed to take an antiviral medication late in their pregnancy to prevent the spread of the disease to the baby. If an outbreak is present when a woman goes into labor, the doctor will likely suggest a C-section instead of a vaginal delivery.

Treatment

The most important step in treatment is to first find out if you have the genital herpes virus. Those who have had unprotected sex or multiple sexual partners should consider getting tested for the disease, which can be done with a simple physical exam and blood test.

There is no cure for genital herpes, but it can be treated with prescription antiviral medications. The most common brand names for this drug are Famvir, Valtrex and Zovirax. These drugs help the sores heal quicker, lessen the severity of symptoms, and reduce the frequency of outbreaks. Additionally, they may help to prevent the spread of the virus. Depending on the prescription, these drugs may be taken daily or only during outbreaks. During very serious outbreaks, an individual may be hospitalized so that they can receive the antiviral medication intravenously until their symptoms subside.

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