Genital herpes is passed on by skin-to-skin contact during vaginal, oral or anal sex, or by sharing sex toys. You can get genital herpes even if there are no visible sores or blisters, and once you have the virus, there is no cure. 'Herpes is more likely to be passed on just before, during or straight after an outbreak, as herpes blisters and sores are highly infectious,' says O’Sullivan.
Although the cause is unknown, outbreaks are often associated with periods of weakened immune systems, skin wounds, menstruation, fever, nerve damage, tissue damage from surgery, or exposure to extreme climate situations. A genital herpes outbreak or episode occurs when the HSV-1 or HSV-2 virus is reactivated from its dormant stage. Genital herpes is an incurable disease, and once you contract it, you may experience outbreaks throughout your lifetime. Those who are experiencing their first herpes episode of genital herpes can expect to have several (typically four or five) outbreaks within a year. Over time these recurrences usually decrease in frequency and severity. The first outbreak of herpes is often the longest outbreak experienced. After that, short and inconsistent episodes can be managed and treated with antiviral medication.
HSV-2 is commonly referred to as genital herpes because it usually causes cold sores to erupt around the genitalia. In fact, genital herpes is the No. 1 cause of genital ulcers worldwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and affects up to 1 in 3 adults (although most who are infected don’t even know it). (5) Both types of herpes viruses are highly contagious, and both can cause cold sores in either area of the body (or sometimes both).
Herpes sores usually appear as one or more blisters on or around the genitals, rectum or mouth. The blisters break and leave painful sores that may take a week or more to heal. These symptoms are sometimes called “having an outbreak.” The first time someone has an outbreak they may also have flu-like symptoms such as fever, body aches, or swollen glands.
Particularly when someone is on suppressive antiviral medication and practicing safer sex, risk of transmission can be greatly reduced. Cullins suggests female condoms (condoms that go inside the vagina and cover most of the vulva, though it's important to note that not all people with vaginas are female) to provide the most protection against transmission, though condoms that go over the penis will protect what they cover.
These drugs may stop viral replication in the skin but do not eliminate HSV from the body or prevent later outbreaks (HSV reactivation). These drugs are used more frequently with HSV-2 infections. Most investigators suggest consulting an infectious-disease expert when HSV-infected people need hospitalization. Research findings suggest laser treatments may speed healing and lengthen the time before any sores reappear.
It should not be confused with conditions caused by other viruses in the herpesviridae family such as herpes zoster, which is caused by varicella zoster virus. The differential diagnosis includes hand, foot and mouth disease due to similar lesions on the skin. Lymphangioma circumscriptum and dermatitis herpetiformis may also have a similar appearance.
Pain, itching and the appearance of sores called lesions are common symptoms of genital herpes. Lesions may appear inside or outside the vagina, and on or around the penis. In both women and men, these sores may appear in and around the anus.6 Lesions typically appear from two days to two weeks after you first get infected with the virus, and will take seven to 14 days or more to heal.7
STI and sexual health expert Michael Asher (who is also CEO at Better2know, the company behind the STI testing for E4's The Sex Clinic) explains what we all should know about oral herpes. He says, "With 3.7 billion people under the age of 50 being infected with HSV1, it is incredibly common and just a single exposure to the virus can lead to infection."
The risk of transmission from mother to baby is highest if the mother becomes infected around the time of delivery (30% to 60%), since insufficient time will have occurred for the generation and transfer of protective maternal antibodies before the birth of the child. In contrast, the risk falls to 3% if the infection is recurrent, and is 1–3% if the woman is seropositive for both HSV-1 and HSV-2, and is less than 1% if no lesions are visible. Women seropositive for only one type of HSV are only half as likely to transmit HSV as infected seronegative mothers. To prevent neonatal infections, seronegative women are recommended to avoid unprotected oral-genital contact with an HSV-1-seropositive partner and conventional sex with a partner having a genital infection during the last trimester of pregnancy. Mothers infected with HSV are advised to avoid procedures that would cause trauma to the infant during birth (e.g. fetal scalp electrodes, forceps, and vacuum extractors) and, should lesions be present, to elect caesarean section to reduce exposure of the child to infected secretions in the birth canal. The use of antiviral treatments, such as aciclovir, given from the 36th week of pregnancy, limits HSV recurrence and shedding during childbirth, thereby reducing the need for caesarean section.