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Getting the Facts on Genital Herpes

Monday, April 7th, 2014

Herpes is a common sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by one of two types of viruses, herpes simplex type 1 and herpes simplex type 2, and that anyone who is sexually active can get. Most of the time, individuals with the virus have no symptoms, and it’s important to understand that even those with no symptoms can still spread it to sexual partners.

Of people in the United States between the ages of 14 and 49, about one out of six has genital herpes. It is spread through vaginal, anal, or oral sex with an infected individual. The fluid in herpes sores carries the virus, and infection can be the result of contact with those fluids. However, the virus can also be released through the skin, so you can even get herpes from someone who is not showing symptoms, or may not even be aware that he or she is infected. The flip side of this, of course, is that if you are the infected partner, keep in mind that you can still spread the virus to your sexual partner(s) even when you have no symptoms.

Realize that condoms may not fully protect you from herpes infection. That’s because outbreaks can occur in areas that aren’t covered by a condom. You should still use a condom every time you have sex, of course, unless you are in a long-term monogamous relationship and you and your partner have both had negative STI test results. The only other way to fully protect yourself from genital herpes is to avoid having sex.

Genital Herpes Symptoms

Herpes often causes no symptoms, or symptoms that are very mild. Mild symptoms may not even be noticed, or they may be mistaken for a skin condition such as an ingrown hair. This is why so many people have herpes and don’t know it.

When there is an outbreak, herpes causes sores that appear as blister(s) in the genital area. When the blisters break, they form painful sores that can take weeks to heal. The first time an infected individual experiences an outbreak, the sores may be accompanied by flu-like symptoms such as fever or swollen glands.

Genital Herpes and Pregnancy

Prenatal care is even more important for pregnant women with genital herpes. Be sure to tell your doctor if you have herpes or if there is any chance you may have it. Because herpes can cause pregnancy complications and is dangerous to your baby, it is important to avoid being exposed to it during pregnancy. At 36 weeks of pregnancy, women with a history of herpes are given an antiviral oral medication in order to decrease their likelihood of having a recurrence.  However, if any symptoms at all or evidence of a lesion are present when it is time for you to deliver, a cesarean delivery will most likely be performed.

If You Have Herpes

Herpes cannot be cured, but there are medications that can shorten outbreaks or help prevent them in the first place. Certain medications are also available that are taken daily and lower the likelihood that you will spread the infection to any sexual partner(s) you may have.

It is very important to inform any potential sexual partners of the fact that you have genital herpes and discuss the involved risks. Not having symptoms and using condoms are two things that can lower the risk of infection, but again, not remove it.

It is possible to spread a genital herpes infection to other parts of your body, such as your eyes, so you should not touch the sores or the fluid from the sores. If you do, you should immediately wash your hands.

Talk to your doctor about how herpes may affect your relationships and overall health, if these are concerns. Realize that while herpes isn’t curable, it is manageable. Talk to a doctor, take the medications he or she recommends, and be cautious about spreading the infection to others. You can find more information on this and other topics in my book, Inside Information for Women.

– Yvonne S. Thornton, M. D., M. P. H