Genital herpes is among the most common sexually transmitted infection that is caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). There are two types of herpes simplex virus. Herpes simplex virus type 1 causes cold sores on the mouth and lips while HSV type 2 causes herpes around the genitals, legs, or anus.
Any sexually active person can get genital herpes, and most individuals with the virus do not have symptoms. The few people who show symptoms experience blisters and ulcers that can be painful but clear up within 2 to 3 weeks.
If infected, you can easily be contagious even if you have no visible sores. Just like HIV infection, genital herpes has no cure, but medications exist that ease symptom and minimize the risk of infecting others.
Facts and Figures
According to the World Health Organization, an estimated 3.7 billion people aged 50 and below (67%) have HSV-1 infection in the whole world. An estimated 417 million individuals aged 15 to 49 (11%) have HSV-2 infection globally.
A study conducted in Kenya in 2012 to substantiate the prevalence of herpes in the country showed that a third of Kenyans have genital herpes. The study involved 15,707 Kenyans aged 15 to 64 who completed interviews and were tested for both herpes and HIV. At least 35% were infected with HSV-2 (42% women and 26% men), and 16% were HIV positive compared to only 2% of those who did not have herpes.
Infection with HSV-2 increases the risk of acquiring and transmitting HIV infection. Both oral and genital herpes infections are asymptomatic but may cause mild symptoms at the site of infection.
As mentioned, the majority of people infected with HSV do not know they have it because they do not have any signs or symptoms, or perhaps their symptoms are so mild.
When they exist, the symptoms may start about 2 to 12 days after exposure to the virus. The signs and symptoms include:
- Itching or pain in the genital area until the infection clears
- Ulcers which form when blisters rupture and ooze or bleed
- Painful urination due to ulcers
- Small red bumps or tiny white blisters
- Scabs after the skin crust over as ulcers heal
A few people experience flu-like signs during the initial outbreak. These signs include fever, muscle aches, headache, and swollen lymph nodes in the groin.
Both men and women may experience the sores in their anus, buttocks and thighs, mouth, or urethra.
Women may also develop sores in the vaginal area, cervix, or external genitals.
Genital herpes is caused by herpes simplex virus, which is divided into two types.
- HSV-1: This type normally causes cold sores or fever blisters around the mouth. It spreads through skin-to-skin contact and can spread to the genitals through oral sex.
- HSV-2: This type causes typically genital herpes, which spreads through sexual contact and skin-to-skin contact. It is very common and extremely contagious whether you have an open sore or not.
When symptoms recur, they normally come during times of illness or emotional stress. That is because, during these times, your body immune system may not manage to suppress the virus and keep it from becoming active.
- Sexual intercourse
The risk of becoming infected with genital herpes may increase if you:
- Are a woman: Women are more likely to have genital herpes compared to men
- Have multiple sexual partners: Every additional sexual partner increases the risk of being exposed to the virus that causes genital herpes.
The doctor will diagnose genital herpes through a physical exam and the results of crucial laboratory tests:
- Viral culture: It involves scraping of the sores or taking tissue samples for examination in the laboratory.
- Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test: PCR is used to copy the DNA from a sample of blood, tissue from a sore or spinal fluid.
- Blood test: It analyzes a sample of the blood for the presence of HSV antibodies to detect past herpes infection.
As mentioned earlier, genital herpes has no cure. However, there are antiviral medications used to suppress genital herpes. They include:
- Acyclovir (Zovirax)
- Valacyclovir (Valtrex)
Both of them are present in Kenya but should only be used as prescription drugs by a doctor after a physical exam and tests to substantiate the severity of the illness. Treatment with prescription antiviral medications help:
- To heal sores sooner during the first outbreak
- Reduce the severity and duration of symptoms in regular outbreaks
- Minimize the frequency of recurrence
- Reduce the chance of transmitting the herpes virus to another
If not treated genital herpes is likely to cause the following COMPLICATIONS:
- Bladder problems due to inflammation around the tube that delivers urine
- Newborn infection during the delivery process
- Meningitis due to inflammation of the cerebrospinal fluid and membranes that surrounds the brain and spinal cord
- Other sexually transmitted diseases including AIDS
- Rectal inflammation (proctitis)
Prevention involves using a condom during sexual activity, abstaining from sex, avoiding sex with a partner who has an outbreak of herpes in the genitals or elsewhere, and testing for herpes when pregnant to prevent infecting the fetus or infant during delivery.
For more information on treatment, speak to a doctor, or get access to a hospital near you through the Uzima Health App.