Genital Herpes

WHAT IS IT?

Genital herpes is also known as HSV-2 (Herpes Simplex Virus, Type 2). The other type of the herpes simplex virus is called HSV-1, and is commonly associated with cold sores. Genital herpes may cause a single outbreak, or may lead to several recurrences over time. Here are some of the things that may trigger a recurrence:
• Emotional stress
• Illness (especially fever)
• Sexual intercourse
• Surgery
• Exposure to sun (including tanning beds)
• Use of certain medications
• Menstrual cycle in women

HOW WOULD I GET IT?

Genital herpes is spread through direct vaginal, anal, or oral sexual contact with an infected person. If someone receives oral sex from a partner with a history of cold sores, it is possible they could get HSV-1 (oral herpes) on their genitals. It typically looks the same as HSV-2, but may be a bit less severe. When a person is infected with HSV-1 and/or HSV-2, the virus is not contagious 100% of the time. However, there are times that the virus can be spread, even when there are no symptoms or visible lesions. This is called asymptomatic shedding. Genital herpes can be passed from an infected mother to her infant during pregnancy or birth. And very rarely, the virus can be passed through fomite transmission, which is when someone contracts the virus through direct contact with contaminated objects such as towels.

It is important to note that condoms have limited effectiveness in protecting someone from genital herpes because they do not cover the entire genital area. However, they still offer some protection, so it is always a great idea to use them!

HOW WOULD I KNOW I HAD IT?

Symptoms of genital herpes may appear 2 days - 3 weeks after initial infection, although they typically occur after a week. Some people who have been infected will never develop symptoms, but they are still able to pass the virus on. When this happens, the person is referred to as a carrier.

Symptoms may start with a tingling or burning sensation where the virus first entered the skin. This may turn into an outbreak, which may involve painful sores (external or internal), inflammation and redness, fever, muscular pain, and/or tender lymph nodes. On average, an outbreak lasts ~23 days for women and ~17 days for men. In the case of recurrence, an infected person may experience the tingling or burning sensation anywhere that lesions had appeared in prior outbreaks.

If you have a lesion, a doctor can swab it and send the sample to lab to confirm whether or not you have been infected with HSV-1 or HSV-2. However, if you do not have any lesions, there are no tests available in Nova Scotia that allow to you find out if you are carrying either of these viruses.

CAN IT BE TREATED AND CURED?

Genital herpes can be treated, but it cannot be cured. Medication can be taken to make the outbreaks less common, and to treat the sores themselves.

Here are some tips for managing the symptoms of genital herpes infection
(from www.sexualityandu.ca):

  • Wear loose clothing during outbreaks
  • Drinking large amounts of fluids will decrease pain during urination, and urinating in the bath may be less painful
  • Wash your hands with soap and water if you touch an infected area, and in particular, do not rub your eyes or touch your mouth after touching infected skin
  • Avoid further infection by keeping the infected area clean and dry. When drying actively infected areas, use a hair dryer or lightly pat the area dry
  • Epsom salts in bath water can help clean and dry out infected areas
  • Wash bath towels before reusing and wash underclothing frequently
  • A healthy lifestyle including proper diet, adequate rest and low stress levels can improve your immune system, and reduce the likelihood of outbreaks

Here are some other things to consider:

  • Avoid sexual activity from the start of the burning/tingling sensation until all lesions have completely healed.
  • Pay attention to personal hygiene to avoid passing the virus on through things like contaminated towels
  • If you are pregnant, advise your doctor of your infection so that precautions can be taken to minimize the risk of passing the virus on to the infant.
IF IT ISN’T TREATED, CAN IT LEAD TO MORE SERIOUS PROBLEMS?

Yes. Genital herpes is connected with an increased risk of passing on or becoming infected with HIV. In chronic cases, genital herpes may lead to emotional issues such as depression and/or sexual dysfunction. We have wonderful nurses, doctors, and a sexuality counselor at HSHC that can help you work through these issues so that you can feel good about yourself sexually and learn ways to talk about HSV with your sexual partner(s).