Genital Herpes is a misunderstood illness, and I hope to dispel some myths with the publication of this article. Perhaps the first thing to note is that the majority of people are infected with one strain of herpes – HSV 1, also known as the common cold sore! Of course it has less of a stigma attached, so let's look at the facts about genital herpes:
What symptoms does genital herpes carry?
The trouble with herpes is that in many people, the symptoms are so mild that they may pass unnoticed. This is good on one level as it will not affect your life, but on the other hand, you're at risk of passing the HSV 2 virus onto another unawares, who may suffer far more discomfort than you.
If symptoms do appear, They tend to appear periodically in "episodes" (or "outbreaks"). As for when, again it varies from person to person. It may be days after contracting the virus, it could be months to years. When it first strikes, the sufferer typically feels flu-like symptoms – fever, headaches and pains in the back and leg. The good news is that these symptoms usually are only present in the first outbreak of HSV 2.
From then on, most genital herpes episodes produce small blisters which then break to form painful shallow sores. After 1-2 weeks, these scab over and then heal. Often the first outbreak is significantly more uncomfortable than future episodes.
If you're thinking this sounds like a cold sore, but for the genitals, you're right. Although HSV 1 (cold sores) is not the same as HSV 2, the symptoms are similar enough for you to think of genital herpes as a cold sore that forms around the genitals, anus, buttocks and thighs. And like cold sores, the virus stays in the body once the genital herpes symptoms have vanished, and can cause recurrent outbreaks at any time.
Are recurrent outbreaks linked to any behaviour?
Yes and no. Triggers for outbreaks of genital herpes can be linked to sex, menstruation, general illness or stress, but often you'll see no explanation and an episode appears without a trigger.
It's important to note that recurrent attacks are caused by the dormant virus in the body and not by re-infection. In most causes the repeat episodes become less frequent over time, and some sufferers can look forward to a time when the attacks stop altogether.
How is HSV 2 spread?
The HSV 2 virus is spread through skin to skin contact, which means sexual contact is largely the cause. Remember that as many people show few to no symptoms, it's possible to pass on the virus to someone even if the sufferer shows no symptoms.
How do I prevent transmission?
There's no sure-fire way to prevent transmission, because it can be passed with no obvious sores, but there are ways of minimising the risk. The first is to avoid having any kind of sexual contact with someone immediately before or during an outbreak of genital herpes. Condoms will stop transmission across the area covered, but of course they only cover the penis, so if sores are elsewhere transmission can still occur.
There are a number of dating sites set up to match singles with genital herpes – of course, people can not be reinfected, so sufferers having sexual contact with each other are not at risk from the disease!
I think I have it – what's does the test for herpes involve?
The herpes test involves taking a sample from the area of the body infected during an outbreak. The HSV 2 virus will usually grow in a swab taken from a open blister. It can then be determined which type – HSV 1 or 2 – you have. HSV 1 is rarer in a genital infection.
The other herpes test is taken via a blood sample. The advantage of this is that you do not need to be having an outbreak to take the test, but it has downsides too. It can not tell you which part of the body is infected (lips or genitals), it can not tell you whether you are likely to display symptoms or not and if can not reveal if general symptoms you've had are down to the HSV virus. Consult your doctor to discuss which herpes test is for you.
Is there a risk of transmission through childbirth ?
Pregnant women with genital herpes may pass the virus onto their baby during delivery causing serious illness. This thankfully is not common, but the medical staff should be told if you carry the virus so that risk of complications can be minimised.
Is there a cure for genital herpes?
Sadly there is no cure for HSV 2, and once the virus is in the body it is there for life. There are ways of managing the symptoms though, thankfully. Iodine paint will dry out the blisters and help prevent secondary infection, while salt baths are good at relieving discomfort.
Anti-viral medication can also be prescribed, and this will help reduce the severity of an outbreak If taken early enough (within 3 days of the symptoms appearing is best). For the unlucky few who suffer from regular outbreaks, some antiviral drugs including aciclovir, famciclovir and valaciclovir can be taken continuously. This will stop most outbreaks from occurring allowing minimal disruption.
Genital herpes has a very bad reputation, but as STDs go, it's actually comparatively harmless and certainly is no bar to living a full, happy and sexually fulfilled life. If in doubt, get a herpes test – you have very little to worry about even if you are infected!