What is Genital herpes?  – Types, Symptoms, Diagnosis, and Treatments

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Genital herpes is transmitted through sexual contact by the virus herpes simplex. The infection spreads through sexual contact and stays inactive for some time.

The virus can reactivate at any time and cause infection. The infection can spread when a person has intercourse with the infected person.  

It can also spread through

  • when a person has oral sex with the infected person,
  • contact with the saliva of the infected person that carries the virus,
  • oral parts that contain the virus and
  • genital parts that are infected with the virus.

However, the infection spreads even if a person has no visible sores or is unaware of the infection. The infection can also spread when using a toilet seat, swimming pools and bedding infected with the virus.

Most of the time, the symptoms are not visible in people having the infection. There is currently no cure, but medications are available to ease the symptoms.

Types

Genital herpes is majorly caused by two types of viruses—herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) and herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2).

HSV-1

Herpes simplex type 1 virus spreads through oral contact, body fluids and infected lesions. This type of virus causes oral herpes. People infected with oral herpes will have mouth sores and cold sores.

Sometimes, type 1 herpes can lead to genital herpes. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), estimated people of around 3.7 billion under 50 years are infected with type 1 herpes globally.

Type 1 herpes causes sores around the mouth and lips. The virus also sometimes causes fever, blisters and cold sores. People infected with type 1 herpes are not at risk of reinfection but can acquire type 2 herpes.

HSV-2

The herpes simplex type 2 virus spreads through sexual contact. This type of spread causes genital herpes.  

According to data published by the world health organisation (WHO), an estimation of 491 million people aged between 15-49 are infected with type 2 herpes.

In both types of herpes, the symptoms are mostly subtle during the early stages. However, when the symptoms set in, they can be severe and distressing.

The herpes infection can have an impact on the sexual relationship. Although, people will have to adjust and live with the infection. Some medications are available to treat these symptoms and stop the infection from spreading to their partners.

In type 1 genital herpes, the symptoms do not reoccur, but in type 2 genital herpes, the symptoms reoccur frequently. The recurrence, at times, can be less severe and might decrease after every episode.

Symptoms

The symptoms of herpes are mostly asymptomatic and people infected are unaware that they have this virus.

After the infection, it takes about 12 days for the symptoms to show. However, the symptoms can be very mild during the initial stages and tend to increase as time passes.

Pain or itching

Pain accompanied by itching is a common symptom of herpes infection. An outbreak of the infection makes it worse.

In the genital areas, the infected area becomes tender, accompanied by itching. Until the infection clears, the symptoms do not settle.

Small red bumps or tiny white blisters

Small red bumps or blisters are a visible symptom of the herpes infection. After the infection, such bumps can be visible. These can cause discomfort and affect the quality of life.

Ulcers

Ulcers are formed when the blisters or bumps break open. When they break, it can rupture or ooze out the fluid and sometimes, bleeding can also occur. It can also cause painful urination.

Scabs

Scabs can signify that the ulcers are healing. They make the skin hard and have a texture of the crust.

Complications

There are certain complications associated with herpes. The complications are listed below.

Other sexually transmitted infections

Genital sores increase the risk of getting infected with other sexually transmitted diseases. And also, these sores can cause an impact during sexual intercourse, which can affect the sexual relationship of a person.

Newborn infection

Infected mothers are prone to transferring the risk to their babies if they are not treated. Pregnant mothers infected with genital herpes within the last six weeks of pregnancy are at risk of transmitting the infection to the infants.

The virus can affect the growth and development of infants. It can cause brain damage and blindness, and in severe cases, it can lead to death.

Bladder problems

The sores caused due to herpes infection can cause discomfort and pain during urination. In addition, it can cause inflammation and redness in the urethra and the bladder.

The swelling can be very severe, causing a blockage of the urethra, and it might require an external catheter to drain the urine out. These can cause pain and discomfort for the infected person.   

Meningitis

When the infection is severe and undiagnosed, it can lead to inflammation of the meninges of the brain cells. However, such cases are rare, and diagnosis can prevent such complications.

Rectal inflammation (proctitis)

Proctitis or rectum inflammation can occur in men, especially who are bisexual. The rectum usually follows back till the end of the colon. If there is rectal inflammation, it can lead to difficulty in flushing the stool out.

However, the inflammation is not permanent and can be treated with external creams and antibiotics.

Diagnosis

Genital herpes, most of the time, has no symptoms or very mild symptoms. It may be unnoticed by the infected person or misunderstood with other skin conditions like pimples.  

Only when there is an outbreak of blisters do people notice it significantly and go for further treatments. Frequent diagnosis is the only method to identify the virus early and treat it properly.

Viral culture

First, there will be a physical examination to see if there is any presence of blisters or sores, and then an appropriate diagnostic method will be handled.

The viral culture is performed to check for the presence of the particular strain that causes the infection. The healthcare professional will collect a sample of skin scabs or skin lesions.

The infected skin can be red, which causes severe pain. So, a cotton swab is rubbed gently on the skin lesion. Then it is sent to the laboratory for further tests.

The collected sample is placed in a specialised culture medium to check for the growth of the virus-like herpes simplex virus (HSV), herpes zoster virus or any kind of protein related to the virus.

If there is any growth, the culture medium is further analysed to determine the type of virus that has been infected.

Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test

The polymerase chain reaction test usually requires a sample of the infected person’s blood. The collected blood will be processed for the presence of any viral genetic makeup.

There are other types of sample collection, like a swab from genital sore or blisters. Sometimes, fluid from the urinary tract is also collected. This type of diagnosis is very accurate.

Blood test

The blood test is preferred when a person shows no symptoms. Usually, the blood test will not identify the virus but will determine the antibodies that it produces for the particular virus.

Physical exam

The physical examination will be the first diagnosis of herpes. The sores and blisters will be physically examined, and further diagnosis will be carried out.

Treatment

There are many treatment options available after the improvement in the medical field.

Antiviral medications

Acyclovir  

Acyclovir is a common antiviral medication to treat herpes. The drug decreases the pain and reduces the symptom severity in the infected person.

Acyclovir also speeds up the healing of blisters and sores. It is also used to prevent the outbreak of herpes in the genital parts.

The antiviral medication acyclovir is placed under the category of synthetic nucleoside analogue. The medication will stop the spread from one body part to another. However, they do not control the infection spread from one person to another.

Valacyclovir

Valacyclovir is an antiviral drug that slows the growth of the herpes virus. The drug also helps fight the body against the infection.

The medication also treats the infected person’s cold sores, genital herpes and shingles. However, the medicine will not cure herpes or stop the infection from spreading to other people but will help reduce the severity of the symptoms.

Home care

Specific home care treatments reduce the pain caused by these blisters. When you see a development of sores, try not to pick it with your hand. This might spread the infection and leads to slow healing.

Wash the sores gently with a mild soap. It is also better not to use soap. Gently pat it dry, or air dry the sores.

Try not to cover the sores with a bandage. This might slow the process of healing. Do not use ointment on your own. Before using any creams, always consult your doctor.

Prevention

Specific precautionary methods can prevent genital herpes.

Using barrier methods, like condoms, every time they have sex.

It is always advised to use a condom to prevent any sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Condoms are not recommended when you have sex with your regular sexual partner. But it is recommended to use a condom if you have sex with a new partner.

Be monogamous

Having intercourse with different partners can increase the risk of STDs. Try to avoid having sex with new partners and be faithful to your sex partner.

Do not abuse alcohol or drugs

Consume alcohol in limited quantity. Try not to over-drink. If you drink too much, there is a possibility of sexually assaulting someone without you being aware of it. Drugs can have the same impact. So, avoid taking drugs in any form.

Limit the number of sexual partners you have

Be faithful to your sexual partner. And sex with a sex worker may increase the chances of getting infected with genital herpes. Limit your sexual partner.

Don’t have sex while intoxicated.

Do not have sex while drunk. Intoxicated sex can lead to unprotected sex and also transmits STDs. So, avoid having sex while intoxicated.

Risk factor

The risk factors for genital herpes are discussed below.

Sexual contact with a person with HSV-1 or HSV-2

A person infected with genital herpes type 1 or type 2 is at the risk of transferring the virus to others. The virus can pass through body fluids and saliva when a healthy person has intercourse with the infected person.  

Having oral sex also increases the risk of getting infected with the virus. The virus can also spread through skin-to-skin contact.  

IgA deficiency

IgA, or immunoglobulin A, is a human protein that helps fight infection. It releases antibodies to kill the pathogens.

The virus can easily invade the body’s immune system and cause infection when there is a deficiency in the antibody.

Multiple sexual partners

When a person has intercourse with different partners, the risk of getting infected with the virus is high.  

You will not know what kind of illness a person has, and for a few minutes of pleasure, you can end up contracting a virus that can make you suffer for eternity. So always be faithful to your partner and avoid having multiple sexual partners.

Anonymous sexual partners

Having sexual contact with anonymous people can increase the transfer of the virus. You will not know the medical history of the person. So, avoid sexual contact with anonymous people.

Prolonged skin-to-skin contact

Prolonged skin-to-skin contact can increase the risk of getting infected with herpes. The bumps or blisters often appear near the mouth and genital areas.  

When having contact with the infected skin, the infection can spread from the infected person to the healthy person. Sometimes, they might not even know they are infected with the virus.

Conclusion

Genital herpes can be prevented with certain precautions like limiting your sexual partner and avoiding sex with anonymous people. Prolonged skin contact can also cause the spread of infection.

Practise ethics and be faithful to your partner to avoid such infection. If you have STDs, converse with your sexual partner before sex. These steps can prevent the transmission of the virus to other people.

FAQ

Is genital herpes curable?

Currently, there is no cure for genital herpes. Medications are available to reduce the severity of the symptoms and prevent the infection from spreading to others.

What triggers genital herpes?

Stress and fatigue can trigger genital herpes. For women, the menstrual period can trigger an outbreak or reoccurrences.

What does having genital herpes look like?

Genital herpes causes a cluster of blisters or sores filled with fluid. It can be itchy, red and painful. The clusters can appear near the mouth and lips, and genital herpes develops near the genitals. These blisters are of many shapes, which can break a release a white fluid or sometimes blood.

Is genital herpes always an STD?

Genital herpes spreads through sexual contact.


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The Information including but not limited to text, graphics, images and other material contained on this blog are intended for education and awareness only. No material on this blog is intended to be a substitute for professional medical help including diagnosis or treatment. It is always advisable to consult medical professional before relying on the content. Neither the Author nor Star Health and Allied Insurance Co. Ltd accepts any responsibility for any potential risk to any visitor/reader.

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