Genital herpes is an extremely common viral infection that causes skin breakouts in the form of blisters and cold sores. The disease is caused by the herpes simplex virus, which takes two forms, herpes simplex virus 1 or HSV1 and herpes simplex virus 2 or HSV2. Both forms of the virus cause lifelong infections in the nerve roots and can be reactivated causing recurrent episodes. During an episode caused by the HSV2 virus small itchy and painful blisters generally appear in the genital area. The HSV1 virus primarily presents as cold sores or fever blisters on the mouth or lips.This disease is considered a Sexual Transmitted Disease (STD) because the primary form of transmission takes place while having vaginal, anal or oral sex with someone who has the disease. Although it can also spread from person to person through kissing and skin-to-skin contact. Transmission often occurs when skin blisters or ulcers are visible, but the virus can be spread when there are no symptoms at all. It can be transmitted by people who don’t even know they are infected. My partner showed no signs of having the disease, nor did he observe symptoms from the person who infected him. Both HSV1 and HSV 2 belong to the same family of viruses that includes the Epstein-Barr virus or more commonly known as mononucleosis and the herpes zoster virus which causes chickenpox in children and shingles in adults. The virus is quite fragile and dries out quickly when exposed to air so there is no risk that will spread through environmental surfaces such as toilet seats, bed sheets etc. There is concern that the virus can be transmitted through immediate contact with items that the infected person has used especially if the item has been in contact with an open sore. This is more common with the HSV1 virus because the sores present orally and allow contamination of items such an eating utensils, cigarettes and lip sticks. The virus typically survives an average of 10 seconds so infection via this method would need to happen immediately after the infected person used the item. You won’t get herpes from using a fork that an infected individually used 30 minutes prior but there is a risk of transmission if you use your friend’s lipstick right after she applied it to an area that is infected.
An individual can be infected with the herpes virus and not have any symptoms. When symptoms do occur they can include itching, burning, soreness and small blisters in the genital or anal area. The blisters may break and form small skin sores or ulcers. Many will experience pain if urine touches these ulcers. Enlarged or painful swollen glands in the groin area can also be present in an infected individual. An individual who is exposed and infected to the virus may experience headache, fever, muscle aches and a generally sick feeling similar to the flu within after exposure. The first episode of a breakout is when I experienced the worst symptoms. Symptoms typically occur from a few days to a few weeks after contact with an infected person. Mine didn’t appear until three months after my first sexual contact. It is not unusually for a person not to experience any symptoms for years. It is typically for everyone with genital herpes to have at least one recurrence of symptoms outbreak. Physical or emotional stress can trigger outbreaks in many individuals. I have had outbreaks when I became stressed about finals and once when I was dealing with a family crisis.
Although herpes does not lead to death there are complications that can arise that may cause other serious medical issues. People with active genital herpes sores are more likely to become infected with HIV if they are exposed through sexual intercourse (Harvard Medical School, 2013). The virus can also be passed to an infant as it travels through the birth canal of an infected mother. This is a relatively rare event in the United States, occurring in no more than 1 in 3,000 live births (Eisenstat, Ziporyn & Carlson). In the rare cases that this does occurs the baby can be born with infections on the skin, mouth, lungs or eyes. If the virus spreads through the baby’s bloodstream, it can cause serious infections of the brain and other vital organs.
The most common form of testing for individuals that have visible sores is to obtain viral culture. A doctor swabs a sore and sends it to a lab to be analyzed for the virus. Viral cultures are not always one hundred percent accurate. If the sore has started to heal, which usually take place within 48 hours of appearance, the swab may not pick up enough of the virus and a false negative will be returned. A blood test can be used to confirm a negative culture. “Diagnosing whether someone has herpes or not is quickly done by a serology test because once you’ve become infected, an immune-competent [healthy] individual will develop antibodies to the herpes that is infecting them,” says Thomas Simms, a biologist in the FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health (Bren).
There is no cure for herpes. There are treatments that can reduce the effects of symptoms when an outbreak occurs. Valtrex is a medication for herpes that slows the spread of the herpes virus in the body, allowing the body’s immune system to fight the virus (Freedman, 39). This medication is usually given when an individual has the first signs of an outbreak. The medication is taken for seven to ten days and the goal is to improve the symptoms or keep them from getting worse. If a individual has frequent outbreaks a doctor may recommended that an antiviral drug be taken every day. This therapy can also reduce the chances of passing the virus onto another person. Stress and poor health can make herpes outbreaks more likely because of the negative effects on the immune system. The immune system is the biggest defense against the herpes virus. Eating right, exercising and getting enough sleep with keep your immune system in shape which will help control outbreaks of the virus.
Genital herpes is the most prevalent viral STD. About one out of five people in the United States has genital herpes Most people with genital herpes have not received a diagnosis. The overall percentage of individuals aged 14-49 who reported never being told by a doctor that they had genital herpes between 2007-2010 was 87.4% (Other Sexually Transmitted Diseases). Transmission rates of passes the virus onto a partner is highest during an outbreak when sores are visible. There is only a 4-10% chance that an individual not experiencing an outbreak will infect their partner. Chances of transmitting the virus are decreased if couples consistently use condoms. The chances are decreased even more if the infected individual is using antiviral medications.
Emotionally dealing with diagnosis of genital herpes is difficult. It can be even be even more difficult to tell your partner but it is essential that you inform them before continuing to engage in intercourse. Learn as much as you can about the virus. Be informed about how the virus is spread and what type of prevention is available. Know the facts and be prepared to answer questions. Don’t assume your partner take the diagnosis as awful news. Instead, be casual, direct and unemotional. Avoid suggesting how her or she should react, simply say you have genital herpes ask if he or she knows what that means. Once the news is out in the open you and your partner can work together to deal with the emotional and physical hurdles you will encounter.
Education and communication are the key factors to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted disease such as genital herpes. As sexual active adults it is our responsible to stay informed and practice safe sex in all relationships. In doing so this disease can be control and possible disappear in the future.