A person may show symptoms within days after contracting genital herpes, or it may take weeks, months, or years. Some people may have a severe outbreak within days after contracting the virus while others may have a first outbreak so mild that they do not notice it. Because of these possibilities, it can be difficult for people to know when and from whom they may have contracted the virus.
Herpes is transmitted via skin-to-skin contact, not through blood or saliva. Cullins explains that someone with HSV can be shedding the herpes virus without having an outbreak (known as asymptomatic virus shedding), and infect somebody that way. Suppressive antiviral medications, like acyclovir or valacyclovir, inhibit HSV replication, which decreases shedding but does not completely eliminate it, says Johnston.
The frequency and severity of recurrent outbreaks vary greatly between people. Some individuals' outbreaks can be quite debilitating, with large, painful lesions persisting for several weeks, while others experience only minor itching or burning for a few days. Some evidence indicates genetics play a role in the frequency of cold sore outbreaks. An area of human chromosome 21 that includes six genes has been linked to frequent oral herpes outbreaks. An immunity to the virus is built over time. Most infected individuals experience fewer outbreaks and outbreak symptoms often become less severe. After several years, some people become perpetually asymptomatic and no longer experience outbreaks, though they may still be contagious to others. Immunocompromised individuals may experience longer, more frequent, and more severe episodes. Antiviral medication has been proven to shorten the frequency and duration of outbreaks. Outbreaks may occur at the original site of the infection or in proximity to nerve endings that reach out from the infected ganglia. In the case of a genital infection, sores can appear at the original site of infection or near the base of the spine, the buttocks, or the back of the thighs. HSV-2-infected individuals are at higher risk for acquiring HIV when practicing unprotected sex with HIV-positive persons, in particular during an outbreak with active lesions.
Since genital herpes affects the private parts, people tend to think that the virus acts differently on men and women. However, the symptoms of genital herpes are very similar in males and females. The most important difference is that the virus can cause complications in pregnant women, who can pass the infection on to their babies. Other than that, there is no such thing as a male or female genital herpes virus, the infection is caused by the same virus in both sexes.
Avoid touching any sores you have. If you do, wash your hands with soap and water. You should avoid sex while you have sores, and use a male or female condom or dental dam with your partner if sex occurs despite intentions to not have sex. Herpes is most contagious during an outbreak, but it’s also possible to spread herpes when no symptoms are present.
You may have concerns about how genital herpes will impact your overall health, sex life, and relationships. It is best for you to talk to a health care provider about those concerns, but it also is important to recognize that while herpes is not curable, it can be managed with medication. Daily suppressive therapy (i.e., daily use of antiviral medication) for herpes can also lower your risk of spreading genital herpes to your sex partner. Be sure to discuss treatment options with your healthcare provider. Since a genital herpes diagnosis may affect how you will feel about current or future sexual relationships, it is important to understand how to talk to sexual partners about STDsExternal.
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.