What is Genital Herpes?
Genital Herpes is a sexually transmitted infection caused by the Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV). It is closely related to the viral strains which cause chickenpox, shingles, and cold sores. While some people like to a make a firm distinction between HSV-1 (which typically affects an individual orally) and HSV-2 (which is more commonly seen around the genitals and anus) both types can spread to either location, meaning that it isn’t strictly relevant which of the two strains an individual comes into contact with. Roughly 10% of Australian adults have Genital Herpes.
Diagnosing Genital Herpes
Many individuals who are infected with Genital Herpes show no signs or symptoms, and may not even be aware that they are at risk of passing this condition along to sexual partners! When symptoms do appear, it is usually shortly after the initial infection and women are much more likely than men to develop the characteristic blisters which healthcare providers typically assess to diagnose the condition.
In mild cases the painful, fluid-filled blisters may be completely absent and there may be a general itchiness or redness of the genitalia which is easily misdiagnosed as a yeast infection. Unfortunately the most common yeast infection treatment – which often consists of an antifungal cream – may actually moisten the area and increase the risk of a full-blown Herpes outbreak, which is then more contagious.
Genital Herpes outbreaks may occur several times per year, though typically this only happens when the body is adjusting to a new infection or the patient has a compromised immune system. Other people never show a single sign or symptom. Most people go several months or even years in between outbreaks, and when they occur they are usually brought on by menstruation, childbirth, a temporarily compromised immune system, or irritation to the genitals which results in broken skin.
Genital Herpes Treatments
In the midst of a painful outbreak, it is best to keep the affected area clean and dry. This means washing thoroughly, using a clean towel (and then laundering it!) and if possible, getting some airflow to the genitals in order to dry the sores out as quickly as possible. Using a hairdryer on the ‘cool’ setting can work wonders. Those with bathtubs may want to consider soaking in a salt bath, while others may find it helpful to take a swim in the ocean.
If the sores are very painful, a numbing cream such as Orajel may help (applied while wearing gloves). Women who find urination painful may seek relief by holding a ball of toilet paper against their urethra while relieving themselves in order to prevent their urine’s ammonia from further irritating their sores. Luckily for men, they typically do not develop sores and when they do, it is generally on their outer skin and not the delicate mucous membranes.
Physicians will often prescribe Acyclovir to manage an outbreak, and in some cases to prevent against future outbreaks if they occur frequently or there is a sexual relationship where one individual has the infection and the other does not. Valacyclovir, while more expensive, is much more effective and taking a Valtrex pill creates a level of antiviral protection only matched by intravenous injection of Acyclovir, so for those who can afford the price difference it is certainly worth looking into.
Safer Sex with Herpes
Unlike Chlamydia or Gonorrhea, Genital Herpes is not present only within bodily fluids, because it may also be spread by skin-to-skin contact. This means that even using a condom will not offer complete protection, especially if there are sores present on the skin of the groin, abdomen, or thighs.
Even when no sores are present, an infected individual may be doing ‘asymptomatic shedding’ and still pass on HSV to their partner.
Since the Herpes virus can reside in either the mouth or the genitals, even oral sex can spread this STI from one person to another. For that reason, it is advisable to use condoms or dental dams when one person is affected by Herpes and the other is not.