Genital herpes is a contagious viral infection of the genitals that's transmitted through vaginal intercourse as well as through oral or anal sex. An estimated 45 million people in the United States are infected with the virus, and experts estimate that a many as 500,000 new cases may occur each year. Once a person is infected, the virus establishes itself permanently in the nerve cells, staying dormant for months or years.
Many people who become infected are asymptomatic. In about one-third of those who develop clinical symptoms, permanent remission occurs after the initial attack, most likely due to the ability of the body’s immune system to contain the virus. The remaining two-thirds of people with symptoms will suffer additional outbreaks at unpredictable intervals. The first outbreak, which can last from one to three weeks, is usually the most severe. The subsequent outbreaks become less severe over time, though the frequency and severity of recurrent episodes vary greatly from person to person.
Genital herpes is highly contagious, and transmission can occur with or without the presence of visible sores. In most cases the virus is more easily transmitted from male to female partners. Pregnant mothers must be especially careful since herpes is readily transmitted during childbirth and can result in severe health problems for the baby.
Symptoms of Genital Herpes
- Within 7-21 days after exposure, flulike symptomsmuscle aches, swollen glands, fever, and sometimes shooting pains in the legs or abdomen.
- Swelling of the lymph nodes
- Tingling, burning or itchiness in the skin
- Back pain
- Painful blisters and sores on genitals, occasionally accompanied by blisters and sores around the mouth.
- In women, painful urination. Symptoms subside without treatment, but sores recur at unpredictable intervals in about two-thirds of the cases.
What Causes Genital Herpes?
The most common cause of genital herpes is the herpes simplex virus, or HSV. There are two types of virus, and genital herpes is usually caused by HSV Type 2, though Type 1the same virus that causes cold sorescan also produce sores in the genital area. In fact, both viruses can infect either area, causing roughly the same symptoms. Both viruses are transmitted through direct contact, including kissing, sexual contact (vaginal, oral, or anal sex), or skin-to-skin contact.
After remission, herpes may recur again and again. The triggers for subsequent outbreaks are not clearly understood, but may include sexual intercourse, sunlight, stress, fatigue, and extremes of heat and cold. People with a weakened immune system (including those with AIDS) are at risk for severe outbreaks of genital herpes.
What If You Do Nothing?
Genital herpes is incurable; once you are infected, the virus remains dormant in your body and symptoms may reappear. The level of discomfort will vary from person to person, but symptoms can be lessened with treatment. If you have recurrent herpes, refrain from sexual contact when you have sores, since you are certainly contagious during this period. Unlike other STDs, genital herpes can be cured on its own.
Home Remedies for Genital Herpes
Although genital herpes cannot be cured, the following measures can be taken to help lessen the discomfort. (However, when symptoms occur, be sure to contact your doctor for evaluation and diagnosis.)
- Relieve the pain. Take over-the-counter pain relieverseither NSAIDs (aspirin, ibuprofen, or naproxen) or acetaminophen, according to label directions. Also, frequent warm baths and warm compresses may bring temporary relief.
- Avoid discomfort during urination. To prevent urine from irritating any vaginal sores, women can urinate in the shower or through a tube, such as a toilet-paper roll.
- Avoid tight-fitting garments. Snug underwear and pants may irritate the genitals.
- Be careful about sexual contact. If either partner has a blister or sore, avoid sexual intercourse. Abstain from oral sex if you or your partner has a cold sore on the mouth.
- Use a condom. If either sex partner has inactive genital herpes, use a latex condom during intercourse. Remember, though, that a condom may not cover all infected areas.
- If you are infected and pregnant, tell your physician, so precautions can be taken to prevent passing the virus to the baby. You can be monitored for a herpes outbreak during your pregnancy and at the time of delivery, if necessary, undergo a cesarian section to prevent the baby from being infected during delivery through an infected birth canal.
Beyond Home Remedies: When To Call Your Doctor
Contact your physician if you have any symptoms of genital herpes. Also contact your doctor if you’ve started treatment but your symptoms don’t improve within seven days, or if a fever returns during treatment.
What Your Doctor Will Do
Because the symptoms associated with herpes can vary, your doctor will carefully examine you and may also order a lab culture taken from an active sore to confirm the presence of the herpes virus. (A negative result from these tests does not mean that the virus isn't present, however; the virus is notoriously hard to pinpoint.)
The disease does not respond to usual antibiotics. Acyclovir (Zovirax), a prescription antiviral medication available in ointment or capsule form, is not a cure but can ease symptoms and may reduce the length of an attack. The capsules are more effective than the topical preparation. If taken continually, this drug usually prevents or decreases the incidence of recurrences. Two other drugs, famciclovir (Famvir) and valacyclovir (Valtrex), have been approved specifically for treating recurrences.
The Complete Home Wellness Handbook
John Edward Swartzberg, M.D., F.A.C.P., Sheldon Margen, M.D., and the editors of the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter
Updated by Remedy Health Media