Genital Herpes Overview
Genital herpes is a common, highly infectious disease caused by a virus. It is transmitted from one person to another during sexual activity. Genital herpes causes blisters or groups of small ulcers (open sores) on and around the genitals in both men and women. Genital herpes cannot be cured; however, there are medications that can be prescribed to treat outbreaks and minimize the symptoms.
Genital herpes is caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). There are two types: HSV-1 and HSV-2. Most genital herpes infections are caused by HSV-2. HSV-1 is the usual cause of what most people call "fever blisters" in and around the mouth and can be transmitted from person to person through kissing. Less often, HSV-1 can cause genital herpes infections through oral sexual contact. The genital sores caused by either virus look the same.
Genital herpes can cause recurrent painful genital sores in many adults, and herpes infection can be severe in people with suppressed immune systems. Regardless of severity of symptoms, genital herpes frequently causes psychological distress in people who know they are infected.
In addition, genital HSV can lead to potentially fatal infections in babies. It is important that women avoid contracting herpes during pregnancy because a newly acquired infection during late pregnancy poses a greater risk of transmission to the baby. If a woman has active genital herpes at delivery, a cesarean delivery is usually performed. Fortunately, infection of a baby from a woman with herpes infection is rare.
Herpes may play a role in the spread of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Herpes can make people more susceptible to HIV infection, and it can make HIV-infected individuals more infectious.
Is there a treatment for herpes?
There is no treatment that can cure herpes, but antiviral medications can shorten and prevent outbreaks during the period of time the person takes the medication. In addition, daily suppressive therapy for symptomatic herpes can reduce transmission to partners.
How can herpes be prevented?
The surest way to avoid transmission of sexually transmitted diseases, including genital herpes, is to abstain from sexual contact, or to be in a long-term mutually monogamous relationship with a partner who has been tested and is known to be uninfected.
Genital ulcer diseases can occur in both male and female genital areas that are covered or protected by a latex condom, as well as in areas that are not covered. Correct and consistent use of latex condoms can reduce the risk of genital herpes.
Persons with herpes should abstain from sexual activity with uninfected partners when lesions or other symptoms of herpes are present. It is important to know that even if a person does not have any symptoms he or she can still infect sex partners. Sex partners of infected persons should be advised that they may become infected and they should use condoms to reduce the risk. Sex partners can seek testing to determine if they are infected with HSV. A positive HSV-2 blood test most likely indicates a genital herpes infection.