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Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted infection which is very common and affects as much as 30% of the world population. Genital herpes can cause painful blisters on the genitals and surrounding areas during an outbreak and can not be cured but may be effectively controlled using antiviral medications. It is similar to ‘cold sores’ found on the hands and face but is located on or around the genital regions such as the penis, anus or vagina.
Genital herpes is caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV) and there are two types of herpes simplex virus (HSV):
Herpes simplex virus-2 (HSV-2)
Herpes simplex virus-1 (HSV-1)
Both of which may be the cause of genital herpes.
However it is important to note that herpes simplex virus-2 (HSV-2) is most commonly the cause of genital herpes whilst herpes simplex virus-1 (HSV-1) is usually more responsible for the cause of ‘cold sores’.
Anyone who has sexual intercourse can contract genital herpes. The risk of contacting genital herpes is increased in those who have unprotected sexual intercourse and those who change sexual partners more frequently.
Genital herpes is highly infectious when having vaginal, anal or oral sex with an individual with blisters or cold sores and it is still possible to transmit the virus when they have no symptoms of infection.
The first episode is normally referred to as a ‘primary’ episode and is usually quite severe and may present with a general feeling of being unwell with fever and swollen lympth nodes, with blisters and inflammation present at the site of infection that may scab and heal over a few weeks, with a potential burning sensation when passing urine.
In most people, the symptoms are usually mild or non-present to the point that they may not even know that they have it. Symptoms may be noticed within a few days or weeks after initial contact but some individuals might not have an initial outbreak of symptoms until a few months or years after becoming infected.
It is important to note that after a primary episode, the herpes simplex virus (HSV) will remain dormant in your body and may reactivate to cause recurrences of the virus in the future.
Before a recurrence presents itself, some people will get an itching, tingling or painful sensation in the area before blisters or sores develop. The symptoms are usually less severe that your first episode and the virus may sometimes reactivate without any symptoms at all.
Any of the following symptoms may be experienced:
• Flu like symptoms such as fever, swollen lymph nodes and fatigue
• Itching or tingling sensation around the infected region
• Cracked or red areas around the infection region without itching or tingling
• Small blisters that pop and develop into painful sores
• Painful, burning sensation when passing urine
• Headaches & backaches
Whilst genital herpes may be frequent and serious is some individuals, most people will usually only experience mild and infrequent symptoms.
Women with recurring herpes are at very low risk of transmitting the virus to their babies. However whilst the risk of transmission of the virus to a newborn baby is very rare in the UK, it is greatest when a women suffers their first episode at the time of delivery, in which case neonatal herpes can be potentially life threatening.
Genital herpes is usually treated by the use of antiviral medication such as Aciclovir, which can be taken at a dose of 400mg three times a day for five days.
There are other antivirals such as Valaciclovir and Famciclovir, which can be taken at a less frequent dosage, however they are all comparable in their effectiveness and Aciclovir is the most cost-effective option.
Self-Care Treatment Options
There are certain non-medical treatment options you can take which may be helpful, such as:
- Clean the infected area with plain or salt water
- Use adequate pain relief medication such as paracetamol
- Apply vaseline or topical anaesthetics to lesions to help with the pain you maybe experiencing
- Increase fluid intake to produce a more dilute urine to help deal with painful urination
- Wear lose fitted clothing
- Regularly clean towels and avoid sharing towels with others
- Avoid any potential trigger factors such as alcohol