What is it?
Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted infection caused by a type of virus called the herpes simplex virus (HSV for short). Of the two known types of HSV, the type 2 is most commonly implicated in this condition. The type 1 virus in addition to causing genital herpes also often causes blisters on the lips and around the mouth (cold sores).
It is important to know that a sexual partner can transmit genital herpes even when they have no symptoms, or before they know they have the virus. Receiving oral sex from someone who has had a cold sore in the past can also give one genital herpes.
Women with genital herpes can pass on the infection to their babies during a vaginal delivery, whether or not they have genital symptoms at the time. This rarely happens, but when it does, it can be very dangerous.
The HSV can remain in one’s body for a very long time without them knowing it. So being diagnosed with genital herpes in a relationship doesn’t necessarily imply unfaithfulness on either party.
What are the symptoms?
Genital herpes is asymptomatic on many occasions. On others, outbreaks of painful sores or blisters occur in the genital area.
Symptoms vary among different individuals, and are usually worst the first time they occur. Any one or more of the following may be present:
- A mild fever or headache usually at the first outbreak of genital herpes.
- Itching, tingling, pain, or burning around the genitals
- Painful blisters or ulcers on or around the genitals, or thighs or buttocks
- Itchy red patches or cracks in and around the genitals
- Enlarged lymph nodes in the groin
- Urinating difficulty in women
What treatments work?
Mild symptoms may be treated by:
- Immersing the genitals in a warm bath (sitz bath)
- Taking pain killers such as paracetamol
- Rubbing a pain-relieving gel called lidocaine on the affected area.
These help relieve the discomfort and may be all the treatment needed.
When symptoms are more severe, Antiviral drugs are the main treatment. They come in handy to clear up the symptoms more quickly. However they can’t get rid of the herpes virus from the body.
Three main antiviral drugs can be given for this purpose are Aciclovir, Famciclovir and Valaciclovir. The doctor will decide on the most appropriate one for you.
Daily intake of these antiviral drugs may be necessary if one has frequent or severe outbreaks of genital herpes symptoms. Apart from reducing the frequency of symptoms, this can also lower the chance of passing the virus to an uninfected partner.
Because of the risk of transmitting genital herpes during child birth, it is often recommended that women with genital herpes take antiviral drugs late in their pregnancy, usually from week 36 until delivery.
Having a caesarean section also reduces the chance of passing on the infection to the baby, especially when the outbreak occurs close to delivery date.
What can I do to prevent passing on the infection?
• It’s important that your sexual partners know that you have genital herpes.
• Avoid having sex with an uninfected partner when you have symptoms
of genital herpes.
• Consistently using condoms during sex can lower the chance of spreading the
• Taking an antiviral drug every day in addition to regular condom use can reduce the chance of you passing genital herpes on.
However, none of these can protect your partner completely.
What will happen to me?
Once contracted, genital herpes can never be gotten rid of, though the virus can live harmlessly inside the body.
Symptoms are likely to recur after the first time, but they usually get successively milder and less frequent over time even without any treatment.
It’s possible to get a more serious illness from the herpes simplex virus, but this is rare. However, people who have a weak immune system have a higher chance of more serious problems.