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What is herpes?
Herpes is the name of a group of viruses that cause painful blisters and sores. The most common viruses are:
- Herpes zoster. This causes chickenpox and shingles.
Herpes simplex virus or HSV type 1 and type 2. Type 1 causes cold sores or fever blisters around the mouth. Type 2 usually causes sores on the genitals (sexual organs). Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted infection (STI). Once you’re infected, you have the virus for the rest of your life.
What are the symptoms of genital herpes?
Many people who get herpes never have symptoms. Sometimes the symptoms are mild and are mistaken for another skin condition. If you experience symptoms, they may include:
- Painful sores in the genital area, buttocks, or thighs
- Painful urination
- Vaginal discharge
- Tender lumps in the groin.
During the first outbreak (called primary herpes), you may experience flu-like symptoms. These include body aches, fever and headache. Many people who have a herpes infection will have outbreaks of sores and symptoms from time to time. Symptoms are usually less severe than the primary outbreak. The frequency of outbreaks also tends to decrease over time.
Stages of infection
Once you have been infected with the virus, you’ll go through different stages of infection.
This stage usually starts 2 to 8 days after you’re infected. Usually, the infection causes groups of small, painful blisters. The fluid in the blisters may be clear or cloudy. The area under the blisters will be red. The blisters break open and become open sores. You may not notice the blisters or they may be painful. It may hurt to urinate in this stage.
While most people have a painful primary stage of infection, some don’t have any symptoms at all, and may not even know they’re infected.
During this stage, there are no blisters, sores or other symptoms. At this time, the virus is traveling from your skin into the nerves near your spine.
In the shedding stage, the virus starts multiplying in the nerve endings. If these nerve endings are in areas of the body that make or are in contact with body fluids, the virus can get into those body fluids. This could include saliva, semen or vaginal fluids. There are no symptoms during this stage, but the virus can be spread during this time. This means that herpes is very contagious during this stage.
Many people have blisters and sores that come back after the first herpes attack goes away. This is called a recurrence. Usually, the symptoms aren’t as bad as they were during the first attack.
Stress, being sick or being tired may start a recurrence. Being in the sun or having your menstrual period may also cause a recurrence. You may know when a recurrence is about to happen because you may feel itching, tingling or pain in the places where you were first infected.
What causes herpes?
The virus that causes genital herpes is usually spread from one person to another during vaginal, oral, or anal sex. The virus can enter your body through a break in your skin. It can also enter through the skin of your mouth, penis or vagina, urinary tract opening, or anus.
Herpes is most easily spread when blisters or sores can be seen on the infected person. But it can be spread at any time, even when the person who has herpes isn’t experiencing any symptoms. Herpes can also be spread from one place on your body to another. If you touch sores on your genitals, you can carry the virus on your fingers. Then you can pass it onto other parts of your body, including your mouth or eyes.
How is herpes diagnosed?
Your healthcare provider can do a physical exam and look at the sores. They can do a culture of the fluid from a sore and test it for herpes.
Herpes can be spread even when the person who has it isn’t showing any symptoms. If your partner has herpes, there is no way of knowing for sure that you won’t get it.
There is no time that is completely safe to have sex and not spread herpes. If you have herpes, you must tell your sex partner. You should avoid having sex if you have any sores. Herpes can spread from one person to another very easily when sores are present.
You should use condoms every time you have sex. Condoms can only help reduce the risk of spreading herpes if they cover all the infected skin. They can help reduce the risk of spreading herpes. But it’s still possible to spread or get herpes if you’re using a condom.
If you think you have herpes, contact your healthcare provider as soon as possible. It’s easier to diagnose when there are sores. You can start treatment sooner and perhaps have less pain with the infection.
There is no cure for herpes. But medicines can help. Medicines such as acyclovir and valacyclovir fight the herpes virus. They can speed up healing and can lessen the pain of herpes for many people. They can be used to treat a primary outbreak or a recurrent one.
If the medicines are being used to treat a recurrence, they should be started as soon as you feel tingling, burning, or itching.
Herpes and pregnancy
It is important to avoid getting herpes during pregnancy. If your partner has herpes and you do not have it, be sure to use condoms during sexual intercourse at all times. Your partner could pass the infection to you even if they are not currently experiencing an outbreak. If there are visible sores, avoid having sex completely until the sores have healed.
If you are pregnant and have genital herpes, or if you have ever had sex with someone who had it, tell your healthcare provider. They may give you an antiviral medicine so you will be less likely to have a herpes outbreak at or near the time you deliver your baby.
If you have an active genital herpes infection at or near the time of delivery, you can pass it to your baby. When the baby passes through the birth canal, it may come in contact with sores and become infected with the virus. This can cause brain damage, blindness of even death in newborns.
If you do have an outbreak of genital herpes at the time of delivery, your healthcare provider will most likely deliver your baby by C- section. With a C-section the baby won’t go through the birth canal and be exposed to the virus. This lessens the risk of giving herpes to your baby.
Living with herpes
It’s common to feel guilty or ashamed when you are diagnosed with herpes. You may feel that your sex life is ruined or that someone you thought you could trust has hurt you. You may feel sad or upset. Talk to your family healthcare provider about how you’re feeling.
Keep in mind that herpes is very common. Herpes may get less severe as time goes by, and you can help protect your sex partner by not having sex during outbreaks and by using condoms at other times.
Tips on dealing with herpes
- Contact your healthcare provider if you think you may have herpes.
- Remember that you’re not alone. Millions of people have herpes.
- Keep yourself healthy and limit your stress.
- Don’t touch your sores.
- Tell your sex partner and use condoms.
Tips to soothe the pain
- Take aspirin, acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin).
- Place lukewarm or cool cloths on the sore place.
- Take lukewarm baths. (A woman may urinate in the tub at the end of the bath if she is having pain urinating — this may help dilute the urine so it doesn’t burn the sores so badly.)
- Keep the area dry and clean.
- Wear cotton underwear.
- Wear loose-fitting clothes.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Public Health Agency of Canada