What is genital herpes? Genital herpes is a common type of sexually transmitted disease marked by outbreaks of blisters and lesions in the genital area. Genital herpes is caused by infection of the herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) or type 2 (HSV-2). HSV-2 is the most common cause of genital herpes. About one out of six people 14 to 49 years of age has genital herpes caused by the HSV-2 infection, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Infection (Source: CDC). Genital herpes is not curable, but it is preventable and controllable in many cases. Genital herpes is diagnosed by testing a small sample of cells or drainage taken from the suspected herpes blister or lesion. A blood test can also check for the specific antibodies that are produced by the immune system in response to a genital herpes infection. Any person who engages in sexual activity can contract and pass on a genital herpes infection. This includes heterosexual, homosexual, and bisexual men and women. The more sexual partners a person has, the greater the risk of catching a genital herpes infection. Genital herpes can also be passed from an infected mother to her baby during vaginal delivery and result in serious complications. In some cases, genital herpes can lead to serious complications, such as meningitis and death of a newborn that was exposed to the disease during pregnancy or delivery. People who have impaired immune systems are also at risk for serious complications, such as the herpes virus spreading throughout the body. Using safer sex practices, seeking regular medical care, and seeking early, regular prenatal care can help reduce the risk of serious complications of genital herpes. What are the symptoms of genital herpes? Symptoms of genital herpes infection vary among individuals. Both men and women with genital herpes may have vague or mild symptoms or no symptoms at all. Many, but not all, people with genital herpes have recurring outbreaks of symptoms during a period of months to years. Recurrences are generally milder in nature and do not last as long as the initial outbreak. Early symptoms of genital herpes occur two to six days after exposure and can include: Decreased appetite Fever General feeling of malaise or not feeling well Headache Muscle aches Pain, sensitivity, and/or itching near or on the penis or vulva Later symptoms of genital herpes occur two to three weeks after exposure and can include: Appearance of groups of blisters on areas that were exposed to the herpes simplex virus, such as the genitals, vagina, cervix, thighs, buttocks or anus Blisters that break open and develop into painful lesions or sores that last about two weeks Chills Fatigue Fever Swollen lymph glands Unusual vaginal discharge What causes genital herpes?Genital herpes is caused by infection of the herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) or type 2 (HSV-2). HSV-2 is the most common cause of genital herpes. Genital herpes viruses are passed from one person to another during sexual contact that involves touching of the genitals or vaginal or anal sex. Less commonly, oral sex can pass on genital herpes caused by the herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1), which also causes cold sores. This only happens in an individual who had no previous HSV-1 infection. By young adulthood most people have already been exposed to HSV-1. Any person who engages in sexual activity can contract and pass on a genital herpes infection, including heterosexual, homosexual, and bisexual men and women. The more sexual partners a person has, the greater the risk of catching a genital herpes infection. Genital herpes can be spread between people even when no blisters or symptoms are present. When HSV reactivates genital herpes, lesions can recur, as do its symptoms and risk of infecting others. The herpes simplex virus can also be passed from an infected mother to her newborn during vaginal delivery. Neonatal HSV infection is a much more serious disease with the virus spreading throughout the body. What are the risk factors for genital herpes? A number of factors are linked to an increased risk of developing genital herpes, including: Being female Being born to a mother with active genital herpes during pregnancy or delivery Having a compromised immune system due to medications or such conditions as HIV/AIDS Having multiple sexual partners Having unprotected sex, including vaginal, oral, or anal sex, with a partner who has had one or more other sexual partners History of another sexually transmitted disease Reducing your risk of genital herpes Genital herpes is generally preventable. It is most contagious during an outbreak when blisters or lesions are present. However, it is important to understand that it is possible to transmit genital herpes even when there are no blisters or symptoms. Not all people who are at risk for genital herpes will develop the disease. You may be able to lower your risk of contracting and spreading genital herpes by Abstaining from sexual activity, especially during a genital herpes outbreak, until all blisters and lesions have completely healed Engaging in sexual activities only within a mutually monogamous relationship in which neither partner is infected with genital herpes or has risk factors for the infection Getting regular, routine medical care Seeking medical care as soon as possible after possible exposure to genital herpes or after high-risk sexual activity Seeking prenatal care early and regularly during pregnancy Using latex condoms properly How is genital herpes treated? Genital herpes is not curable, but prompt diagnosis and treatment can help to reduce or delay the onset of serious complications, improve the quality of life, and minimize the spread of the disease to others. You can best manage genital herpes by consistently following your treatment plan. Treatment plans generally include medications and other treatments. Antiretroviral medications for genital herpes Genital herpes can be controlled to various degrees with antiviral or antiretroviral medications. These drugs do not cure genital herpes but can help to speed the healing of blisters and reduce the amount of time in which the disease is most contagious. Antiviral therapy also reduces the rate of recurrent lesions. Medications include: Acyclovir Famciclovir Valacyclovir Other treatments for genital herpes Other measures that help to treat and prevent the spread of genital herpes include: Avoiding touching affected areas during outbreaks For pregnant women, having a Cesarean section delivery, especially if you have active genital herpes Keeping affected areas clean and dry Washing hands thoroughly after using the bathroom or touching the genital area What are the possible complications of genital herpes? Complications of genital herpes can be serious in some cases. You can minimize the risk of serious complications by following the treatment plan you and your health care professional design specifically for you. Serious complications of genital herpes People at risk for serious complications of genital herpes include people with impaired immune systems due to such conditions as HIV/AIDS or chemotherapy. Serious complications include: Increased risk of contracting other sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS Severe, recurrent outbreaks and symptoms Spread of herpes infection through the bloodstream into other organs and tissues of the body Life-threatening newborn complications of prenatal genital herpes Newborns whose mothers have genital herpes, especially active genital herpes, during pregnancy or vaginal delivery are at risk for life-threatening complications. Exposure to the herpes virus is dangerous because a newborn’s immune system is not yet fully developed. Complications include: Encephalitis Meningitis Retinitis Seizures If you suspect that you may have genital herpes, talk with your health care professional about being tested. A blood test can test for the specific antibodies that are produced by the immune system in response to a genital herpes infection. If you have a suspected blister or lesion, testing a small sample of cells or drainage can determine if you are infected. Your health care professional may recommend that you deliver your baby via Cesarean section to protect your baby from exposure to the herpes virus.