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Genital Herpes: 10 frequently asked questions

Genital Herpes

What is Herpes?

We commonly call Genital Herpes (or HSV, standing for Herpes Simplex Virus), the contagious disease that may affect the genital area. However, Herpes Simplex is the name given to the virus which causes the infection. We know two Herpes Simplex Virus species that can infect humans. Herpes Simplex Virus 1 and 2 are two members of the human Herpesviridae family. HSV-1 and HSV-2 are common and contagious and can cause HSV infection or disease. HSV-1 is mainly the cause of cold sores, but it can cause infection also in the genital area. HSV-2 is the primary genital infection but can also infect the lips.

How does Herpes happen?

Genital Herpes (HSV-2) spreads through close contact between two persons. The most common infection occurs during sexual intercourse because of close contact with a herpes sore. Most people get Genital Herpes from an infected asymptomatic sexual partner without skin or mucosal abnormalities (asymptomatic viral shedding).

Labial Herpes (HSV-1) also spreads through close contact between two persons (while kissing). However, one can also get it from inanimate objects like glasses and towels.

What how Herpes looks like?

Herpes looks like a painful red patch that progresses into small blisters full of liquid containing the virus. These blisters usually break up, becoming very painful and releasing the virus that can infect further. When the blisters dry up, they cover with a crust that goes away in small fragments, leaving the underlying skin healed. The healing process may take 1 to 4 weeks.

What does it feel like with Herpes?

The most common symptom of genital Herpes (HSV-2) is a skin or mucosal abnormality made of a group of painful blisters in the penis, vagina, or anal area. Lip and mouth infections are also possible with genital Herpes HSV-2. Sores appear when the blisters brake up. Another possible symptom is burning while peeing if urine touches the herpes sores. If sores arise inside the urethra, the sign will be extremely painful urination (dysuria) and an irregular, weak urine stream. The urine analysis shows traces of blood and inflammatory changes in the urine sediment without bacterial growth.

Where Herpes lives in the body?

After the first outbreak (after the first contact with HSV), the immune system kills most of the viral particles. However, few take refuge along the peripheral nerves up to the nerve roots (neural ganglions), where the immune system cannot destroy them. These hidden HSV are latent, meaning they can live in the body without causing symptoms. In different circumstances (low immune system, chronic diseases, trauma), the hidden HSV goes the opposite neural way causing skin lesions at the origin of the first infection.

Is there a cure for Herpes?

There is no cure or preventive treatment for Herpes infection. Once the virus is inside our body, there are no treatments that can eradicate it. If a person gets herpes virus infection, he will have it for life, whether or not he experiences symptoms.

Is Herpes dangerous?

Herpes infection is rarely dangerous. When the immune system is seriously affected by chronic conditions like HIV infection or other chronic diseases, the skin or the mucosa could be extensively involved, and some general symptoms like fever and malaise could appear. Vaginal Herpes disease is dangerous for the newborn baby during the delivery.

How do we know if someone has already had Herpes?

Herpes infection develops an antibody response. A simple blood test may reveal if someone has already gotten infected.

How to know if the herpes outbreak is over?

Herpes outbreak is over only after the skin or mucosal changes in the genital area disappear entirely. The sores are very infectious when the blisters break up and release the liquid full of viruses.

Sex with someone who has Herpes

In the presence of noticeable skin or mucosal abnormalities, sex will result in infection if we do not use protection. In rare cases, periodic viral shedding from the genital area may cause disease when having sex with an already infected, asymptomatic partner. Condoms are protective, and we must wear them always during sexual intercourse. Having sex with multiple partners is not only a high risk of herpes infection. A complete sexually transmittable infections test is recommended when we start a new stable relationship, especially if we plan to start a family.

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