Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted disease (STD), affecting millions of people worldwide. A lot of stigma surrounds STDs, making it difficult to seek help when needed. But the reality is that anyone can get herpes.
Genital herpes isn't curable, but it is manageable. If you have herpes, talking about it and figuring out your next steps can seem daunting. This article will cover both medical and psychological guidelines that can help people with genital herpes manage their situation.
What is genital herpes?
Two types of herpes simplex virus cause Genital Herpes: herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) and herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2).
HSV-1 is mainly transmitted by oral-to-oral contact via sores, saliva, and surfaces around the mouth. This virus causes oral herpes, including what is commonly referred to as cold sores. HSV-1 can also be transmitted to the genital area through oral-genital contact causing genital herpes, but is less likely to do so. The virus can spread even if the skin around the mouth or genitals appears normal.
HSV-1 is mostly asymptomatic, meaning that those infected often don’t know they have the virus. HSV-1 can cause both oral and genital herpes, both of which are often asymptomatic. If symptoms do present, they may recur periodically.
HSV-1 Oral Herpes symptoms
Blisters and ulcers in and around the mouth
Tingling, itching, or burning sensations around the mouth preceding the appearance of blisters
HSV-1 Genital Herpes symptoms
One or more genital or anal blisters or ulcers
HSV-2 causes genital herpes. The virus is sexually transmitted through contact with genital surfaces, skin, open sores, semen, and vaginal secretions. HSV-2 can be transmitted from normal-looking skin in the genital area, not only from sores. Just like HSV-1, HSV-2 is often asymptomatic. Both virus types result in a lifelong infection with no cure, however, this doesn’t mean that if you have contracted genital herpes, you will experience painful symptoms and discomfort. Most cases are asymptomatic or accompanied by mild symptoms, which means that misdiagnosis is not uncommon.
Possible symptoms include:
Mild tingling or shooting pain in the legs, hips, and buttocks before the appearance of genital ulcers
One or more genital or anal blisters or ulcers
Swollen lymph nodes
In most cases, people find out they have the virus during an outbreak of symptoms. The first outbreak is likely to occur two to twelve days after the person was infected. With HSV-2 recurrent symptoms are more common, but these tend to be less severe than the initial outbreak.
In rare cases, the HSV-2 or HSV-1 infection can be passed down from a mother to her infant during childbirth, resulting in
neonatal herpes—a condition that can lead to neurological disabilities and, in extreme cases, even death. The risk for neonatal herpes is greatest when a mother is exposed to HSV in the late stages of pregnancy.
Understanding how the virus spreads is the first step to stop it from spreading further. Whether safeguarding yourself from the virus or protecting your sexual partners, the precautions are the same.
Both HSV types are most contagious during outbreaks, but can also be contagious when you are asymptomatic.
Individuals with genital HSV should abstain from sexual activity during outbreaks.
The use of condoms during sex can help reduce the risk of spreading the infection, however, they only provide partial protection, since HSV can be found in areas not covered by a condom.
The use of dental dams when engaging in oral sex can serve as a protective layer.
HSV increases the risk of getting HIV, so when getting tested for symptoms, it is wise to also test for HIV.
Although genital herpes is a lifelong condition, this doesn't have to be detrimental to your mental health or sex life. There are many things you can do to minimise the risk of transmitting the infection and to manage the symptoms. This doesn't mean it will be easy, but it can be done. Best of all, you can still form sexual relationships without the fear of spreading HSV.
A few things to take note of:
Antivirals such as acyclovir, famciclovir, and valacyclovir can alleviate symptoms, shorten outbursts, and speed the healing process.
Suppressive therapy—a prescription daily antiviral medication—can reduce transmission by 50%-80% and significantly reduce outbreaks.
Over-the-counter painkillers can help relieve some symptoms.
Warm showers or baths can soothe affected areas and provide some short-term relief.
The use of condoms along with daily antivirals and abstaining from sex during outbreaks can reduce the risk of transmission significantly.
Keep your mind and body as healthy as possible so you can fight the infection and keep outbreaks to a minimum. This includes getting enough sleep, reducing stress, and eating well. Remember, health is not limited to physical health—find someone you can confide in and tell them about what you are going through. Having a little moral support can make a great difference in how well you are able to handle your situation.
Sexual education is sadly lacking in many places around the world. If you have not had access to information on STDs or sexual safety, it isn’t not your fault you have not been informed. It can be difficult to talk about intimate topics, especially if something seems to be wrong. But knowledge is a vital part of a healthy sexual relationship with yourself and with your partner/s, so now is the time to educate yourself.
If you suspect you have been exposed to Genital Herpes (or any other STD for that matter), make an appointment with your doctor. They can either rule it out and stop you from worrying, or confirm your suspicions and help you find the best way to manage your situation. Remember, they are there to help you, not to shame you.
Apart from seeking help and managing your health, the only people who absolutely need to know about your condition are people you do or intend to have sexual relations with. If you don’t want to divulge this information to friends or family, you don't have to. It would probably be good to have someone to confide in, however the choice is yours and yours alone.
Relearning how to manage your life with a new condition will present challenges. The first step is accepting the reality. And the second is looking for ways to keep living normally and enjoying the things you enjoy. Genital Herpes doesn’t have to stop you in your tracks, but making peace with the diagnosis is essential.
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