Contagious, painful and unsightly, a herpes outbreak is bad enough on your mouth let alone your private parts. What's more, once you're infected, you've got it for life.
What is genital herpes?
Known as 'genital hurties' because of its painful symptoms, genital herpes is a virus that's passed on through penetrative and oral sex, as well as through close genital contact. The virus is most contagious during the active phase, when there are visible sores. However, it can also be passed on through the skin or mucous membranes (known as viral shedding), when there are no symptoms. It's caused by herpes simplex (HSV), a virus that has two strands: HSV 1 and HSV II. Both types can infect the genital area, anus, and also the mouth and nose (cold sores). It can also infect the fingers and hand (whitlows). Like the common cold sore, after the first outbreak the virus remains in your body for the rest of your life, but that doesn't necessarily mean you'll have the physical symptoms.
The origin of genital herpes is unknown. While the Greeks were the first to document what they called "the creeping disease", some scholars believe genital herpes has been around since the beginning of the human race. During the 1500s genital herpes was rife - it even gets a mention in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. Back then it was presumed insect bites were the cause, and it wasn't until the 1900s that the various strains were identified, as well as the fact that it was contagious.
Now, over 70% of the population in the UK has the milder HSV I virus responsible for cold sores and 10% has genital herpes, although numbers are creeping up. In 2008 a record number of people (28,957) were diagnosed with genital herpes. Just over 60% of these diagnoses were among women.
What are the symptoms of genital herpes?
The first attack of herpes is usually the worst. Within 10 days of infection, symptoms are likely to appear, ranging from feeling generally unwell, a headache, temperature, swollen glands and aching muscles. These are followed by a tingling or itching sensation in the groin area before small watery blisters appear around the genitals or anus. These burst to leave painful sores that sting even more when you pee - especially for women.
What does genital herpes look like?
Everyone knows what a cold sore looks like. Now imagine that on your genitals.
How is genital herpes treated?
If you feel a tingling sensation in your groin similar to the early signs of a cold sore, go to your nearest genitourinary medicine (GUM) clinic or make an appointment to see your doctor (GP). A nurse or doctor can tell if you've got a dose on sight, although they'll take a swab of fluid from the blisters or sores and send them off to the lab for confirmation.
Treatment involves a course of antiviral tablets, usually prescribed within five days of the start of the outbreak. The first outbreak lasts between two and four weeks, but there are things you can do to speed this up and ease the pain. Bathing the sores in salt water, using a cold compress wrapped in a tea towel, or even applying cold tea bags directly to the sores can all help. Applying an anaesthetic ointment can also soothe the pain, but don't be tempted to use over-the-counter treatments for cold sores, as they're not suitable for genital herpes.
Subsequent attacks - if you get them - are less severe and may be brought on by certain triggers, including illness, stress, or too much friction during sex. However, many people who get herpes don't have more than one attack.
What if I ignore it?
Unlike most STIs, genital herpes will eventually clear up by itself so it's not essential to have treatment - although it can speed up recovery. However, painful, weeping sores on your bits are hard to ignore.
If a pregnant woman contracts genital herpes in the first three months of her pregnancy there's a small risk of miscarriage. Picked up later on, the virus can be passed onto a baby during a vaginal birth.
How do I protect myself from contracting herpes?
Condoms offer some protection, but as the virus may spread via the groin, thigh and abdomen, they're not foolproof.
Avoid oral-genital and oral-anal sex with someone who has cold sores on the mouth, or if you have cold sores, as these can infect the genitals.
Of course, if you really want peace of mind you can always ask your partner if they've ever had herpes.
How soon can I have sex again?
It's recommended you don't go there in the early stages of an outbreak, during an outbreak, and for at least a week after the symptoms have gone. This is to help prevent you passing the symptoms onto someone else.
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