Genital herpes is caused by the
herpes simplex virus, type 1 or type 2. Both types can infect the mouth
(producing cold sores) or the genital area (genital herpes).
When a person is infected
with the herpes virus, it may pass
unnoticed into their body and they may be unaware that they contracted
the infection. This is called "subclinical infection." In fact, many
people with genital herpes are not aware that they carry the infection
and can pass on the virus to others even when there is no visible
evidence of blisters or sores.
When symptoms occur, they
appear from time to time in episodes
called outbreaks. After contracting the herpes virus, a person may
experience an episode within a few days, but it may take much longer,
sometimes years, before symptoms are noticed. Often, the person never
develops recognizable herpes symptoms.
Most genital herpes
outbreaks cause symptoms similar to the cold
sores that many people experience on or around their lips or nostrils.
With genital herpes, the "cold sores" usually appear on or near the
genitals or anus. Sometimes they appear on the buttocks or thighs.
Outbreaks may produce small
fluid-filled blisters which break
open to form shallow, painful sores. These develop a scab after 1-2
weeks and then heal. Sometimes the first outbreak causes considerable
pain and distress, fever or chills; future episodes are usually less
Although herpes sores heal,
the virus remains in the body and may
produce more sores later. There are called recurrent outbreaks.
Recurrent outbreaks usually occur on or near the same part of the body
as the first attack, but are often shorter in duration and not as
painful. The may be triggered by general illness, stress, menstruation
or sexual activity. Often, no trigger is identified. In most cases,
recurrent outbreaks become less frequent with time and may eventually
stop altogether. Recurrent outbreaks are caused by reactivation of the
dormant herpes virus already present in the body - not by being
The virus is spread by
skin-to-skin contact. Cold sores on the
mouth are a potential source of genital infection during
mouth-to-genital contact (oral sex). Because recurrent herpes may cause
few symptoms or pass unnoticed, it is possible to pass on the virus
even when there are no visible blisters or sores.
In pregnant women, herpes
infection may be transmitted to the
baby at delivery, causing serious illness. The obstetrician should be
told of past genital herpes infections so the risk of this complication
can be minimized.
Herpes is diagnosed by
taking a sample from an infected area
during an outbreak. The herpes virus will usually grow from a swab
taken from a ruptured blister. The test can identify the strain (type 1
or type 2) of the herpes virus. Type 1 genital herpes tends to cause
fewer recurrences than type 2. Blood tests also assist in herpes
diagnosis, especially if no blisters are present to swab.
Genital herpes is caused
by a virus, so it cannot be cured.
Herpes can be treated, however. Anti-viral medications prescribed by
the doctor may reduce the severity and duration of the outbreak. If
outbreaks are frequent, anti-viral medications may be taken
continuously to try to decrease the number of outbreaks. Anti-viral
medications do not eliminate the herpes virus from the body.