Genital Herpes is a common viral infection that can cause painful sores that occasionally appear on and around the genitals. About one in seven people in Canada carry the herpes virus and the majority don’t know they do. Once someone is infected with it, the virus stays in the body for life but symptoms can be managed. After the initial infection, which may or may not be noticeable (for some, it might lead to painful sores and flu-like symptoms while others might not experience any symptoms at all), people may or may not experience recurrent outbreaks. Outbreaks can be managed with the help of creams and pills (either when they happen or as a daily prevention method) as well as by taking extra care of ourselves (lowering stress, getting good sleep, taking vitamin C, etc.).
Herpes is passed on via skin-to-skin contact. There are two strains of the herpes virus. The first one (HSV-1) usually causes cold sores around the mouth but it can sometimes be spread to the genitals through oral sex. The second one (HSV-2) is more commonly found on the genitals but in rare cases, it can be spread to the mouth through oral sex.
*Not everyone will experience symptoms
Not everyone with genital herpes has noticeable sores or lesions. For those who do, the first outbreak is usually the most severe. The ones after are usually less severe and for many people, but not all, those outbreaks will happen less often over time. When they do happen, the symptoms are usually painful blisters (one or many in clusters) in the genital area; these crust over and heal within one to two weeks.
Other genital symptoms are an itchy, tingling, burning, or painful sensation in the skin surrounding the infected area. Symptoms can also include pain in the legs or buttocks, swollen and tender lymph nodes in the groin area, thin watery discharge from the vagina, fever, headache, or muscle ache (for most people, these symptoms occur during the initial infection). Many people will also feel tired.
For genital herpes infections caused by HSV-1, lesions happen less often than for infections caused by HSV-2. Recurrent outbreaks are often preceded by tingling, burning, or itching in the infected area up to several days before the lesions appear.
Tingling or burning can indicate that an outbreak (a flare-up of symptoms) may happen soon. Sores on the lips and inside the mouth, which many call cold sores, will crust over as time passes. Symptoms typically resolve within one to two weeks.
Pain during urination, inflammation of the nervous system in some cases (aseptic meningitis), swollen lymph nodes, flu-like symptoms.
Transmission and Prevention
There are two strains of the herpes virus. HSV-1 causes cold sores around the mouth but it can be spread to the genitals through oral sex. HSV-2 is more commonly found on the genitals but in rare cases, it can be spread to the mouth through oral sex. It can also be transmitted from a pregnant individual to their baby during childbirth. Symptoms do not have to be present for transmission to occur. In fact, most HSV-2 (genital herpes) infections occur when someone has sex with an individual who does not have visible symptoms or lesions. Many people don’t know they carry the herpes virus.
Condoms and dental dams can be used during sex to avoid transmission and can be highly effective if the site of infection/lesions can be covered that way. If lesions are on areas of the genitals or groin not covered by a condom, transmission may still occur. One way to reduce the possibility of transmission is to avoid unprotected sex or skin-to0skin contact when the partner who has herpes has active lesions (sores) or early symptoms of a breakout (e.g., tingling sensations, fatigue).
While there is no known cure for herpes, anti-viral medications are effective in decreasing the duration and severity of herpes breakouts when they happen. Some people also decide to take anti-viral medication daily to prevent outbreaks and lower chances of transmission. Other ways to reduce outbreaks can include taking a high dose of lysine and vitamin C daily and reducing triggers such as sunburn, stress, and lack of sleep.
Speak with your health care provider about which regimen is best for you.
Herpes is tested through either a blood test or through swabbing an active herpes lesion