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
The herpes simplex virus is probably the most well-known virus of the herpes family, and it is just as contagious. Herpes simplex infects epithelial cells and remains latent in neurons. HSV-1 causes recurrent oropharyngeal lesions, commonly known as “fever blisters" or "cold sores.” It is also the primary cause of sporadic encephalitis (inflammation of the brain), gingivostomatitis (inflammation of the gums and mucous lining of the mouth), and keratoconjunctivitis (severe dryness of the eye that involves the cornea) and dendritic corneal ulcers (also called HSV keratitis) in which the cornea becomes affected by herpetic lesions that look like the dendrites of neurons in the brain.
Avoid physical contact with anyone who has visible blisters and sores, and don't share towels or anything that may have come into contact with the sores. "It is also important that before you have any intimate contact with anyone you ask them about their sexual health, whether they have a herpes infection or have ever had any other sexually transmitted infection," Michael advises. "This is because statistically, people who have had an STI are more likely to be infected with the herpes virus. Using condoms and dental dams can also help reduce your risk of catching oral herpes."
No method eradicates herpes virus from the body, but antiviral medications can reduce the frequency, duration, and severity of outbreaks. Analgesics such as ibuprofen and paracetamol (acetaminophen) can reduce pain and fever. Topical anesthetic treatments such as prilocaine, lidocaine, benzocaine, or tetracaine can also relieve itching and pain.
Herpes is contracted through direct contact with an active lesion or body fluid of an infected person. Herpes transmission occurs between discordant partners; a person with a history of infection (HSV seropositive) can pass the virus to an HSV seronegative person. Herpes simplex virus 2 is typically contracted through direct skin-to-skin contact with an infected individual, but can also be contracted by exposure to infected saliva, semen, vaginal fluid, or the fluid from herpetic blisters. To infect a new individual, HSV travels through tiny breaks in the skin or mucous membranes in the mouth or genital areas. Even microscopic abrasions on mucous membranes are sufficient to allow viral entry.
HSV-1 and HSV-2 are transmitted by direct physical contact with a sore on an infected person. Facial or lip herpes is most often contracted by kissing someone with a cold sore. Genital herpes is most often contracted during sexual intercourse with a person who has an active genital sore. Genital herpes can also be contracted during or genital sex if a partner has labial herpes.
If you have herpes, you should talk to your sex partner(s) and let him or her know that you do and the risk involved. Using condoms may help lower this risk but it will not get rid of the risk completely. Having sores or other symptoms of herpes can increase your risk of spreading the disease. Even if you do not have any symptoms, you can still infect your sex partners.
Most people with genital herpes have no symptoms, have very mild symptoms that go unnoticed, or have symptoms but do not recognize them as a sign of infection. Genital herpes symptoms include blisters, sharp pain or burning feelings if urine flows over sores, an inability to urinate if severe swelling of sores blocks the urethra (tube from the bladder to outside the vagina), itching, open sores, and pain in the infected area.
Jamie*, 29, is HSV-positive and contracted herpes from her husband. But, she explains, “He only had one outbreak when he was young and that was it. So he didn't realize what it was.” Jamie was infected three years into their relationship simply because he had outbreaks that infrequently. She says, “I was worried he had cheated on me, but then found similar stories online, and our outbreak patterns underscore that what happened is very possible.”
If abstinence is not possible, using a sexual barrier (such as a condom or dental dam) can reduce the likelihood of transmission, although there is still a risk that these methods will not be sufficient to prevent the spread of the virus. It’s also a good idea to keep a visual reminder of your infection at hand to avoid any accidental food or beverage sharing.
Until the 1980s serological tests for antibodies to HSV were rarely useful to diagnosis and not routinely used in clinical practice. The older IgM serologic assay could not differentiate between antibodies generated in response to HSV-1 or HSV-2 infection. However, a glycoprotein G-specific (IgG) HSV test introduced in the 1980s is more than 98% specific at discriminating HSV-1 from HSV-2.
In order to diagnose herpes, a health care provider can swab an area of visibly active herpes infection or, if symptoms aren’t active, a blood test can be given that measures the number of herpes antibodies present in the body. The antibodies don’t indicate herpes itself, but rather show the immune system’s response to the presence of the virus in the body. It’s important to note that sometimes a swab can give false negative results since herpes lesions need to be large enough to yield enough detectable virus and if the outbreak is already healing it also may not be detected in a swab. (6)
The broader issue is whether, if you do get infected, herpes will ultimately harm your health. Although I don’t want to trivialize this infection, in your general scheme of health, it probably will not. The major concern is that if you are pregnant and develop a new outbreak of herpes, the virus can be transmitted to the fetus, especially during vaginal delivery. What’s more, people with genital herpes have a much greater risk of acquiring HIV if they are exposed. (It’s theorized that the lesion causes microscopic breaks in the skin, allowing HIV to enter the body.)
Herpes viruses typically infect the oral or genital mucosa. When herpes affects the mouth, it causes the typical "cold sores," which are painful sores or blisters that form on the lips, mouth, or gums. Prior to the development of the blisters, there may be a prodrome (early symptoms indicating onset of a particular disease) consisting of an itching, burning, or tingling sensation in the affected area. The virus remains dormant in the nervous system throughout life, and this is the reason that cold sores often recur in the same location.
A doctor will base a presumptive diagnosis on information provided by the patient and on the physical examination. The characteristic appearance of the herpes sores leaves little doubt about the diagnosis, so the typical appearance of the sores is key to the diagnosis. This appearance helps distinguish oral herpes from oral thrush, shingles, gonorrhea, and syphilis. In addition, chapped or sunburned lips can resemble oral herpes, but the tissue stain (Tzanck smear, see below) shows no virus-induced cell changes. Further testing is usually not necessary but is sometimes done.