Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs In Women) (cont.)

Medical Author:
Medical Editor:

Genital Herpes

What is genital herpes?

Genital herpes, also commonly called "herpes," is a viral infection by the herpes simplex virus (HSV) that is transmitted through intimate contact with the mucous-covered linings of the mouth or the vagina or the genital skin. The virus enters the linings or skin through microscopic tears. Once inside, the virus travels to the nerve roots near the spinal cord and settles there permanently.

When an infected person has a herpes outbreak, the virus travels down the nerve fibers to the site of the original infection. When it reaches the skin, the typical redness and blisters occur. After the initial outbreak, subsequent outbreaks tend to be sporadic. They may occur weekly or even years apart.

Two types of herpes viruses are associated with genital lesions: herpes simplex virus-1 (HSV-1) and herpes simplex virus-2 (HSV-2). HSV-1 more often causes blisters of the mouth area while HSV-2 more often causes genital sores or lesions in the area around the anus. The outbreak of herpes is closely related to the functioning of the immune system. Women who have suppressed immune systems, because of stress, infection, or medications, have more frequent and longer-lasting outbreaks.

Genital herpes is spread only by direct person-to-person contact. It is believed that a majority of sexually active adults carry the herpes virus. Part of the reason for the continued high infection rate is that most women infected with the herpes virus do not know that they are infected because they have few or no symptoms. In many women, there are "atypical" outbreaks where the only symptom may be mild itching or minimal discomfort. Moreover, the longer the woman has had the virus, the fewer the symptoms they have with their outbreaks. Finally, the virus can shed from the cervix into the vagina in women who are not experiencing any symptoms.

Symptoms of genital herpes

Once exposed to the virus, there is an incubation period that generally lasts 3 to 7 days before a lesion develops. During this time, there are no symptoms and the virus cannot be transmitted to others. An outbreak usually begins within two weeks of initial infection and manifests as an itching or tingling sensation followed by redness of the skin. Finally, a blister forms. The blisters and subsequent ulcers that form when the blisters break, are usually very painful to touch and may last from 7 days to 2 weeks. The infection is definitely contagious from the time of itching to the time of complete healing of the ulcer, usually within 2 to 4 weeks. However, as noted above, infected individuals can also transmit the virus to their sex partners in the absence of a recognized outbreak.

Diagnosis of genital herpes

Genital herpes is suspected when multiple painful blisters occur in a sexually exposed area. During the initial outbreak, fluid from the blisters may be sent to the laboratory to try and culture the virus, but cultures only return a positive result in about 50% of those infected In other words, a negative test result from a blister is not as helpful as a positive test result, because the test may be a false-negative test. However, if a sample of a fluid-filled blister (in the early stage before it dries up and crusts) tests positive for herpes, the test result is very reliable. Cultures taken during an initial outbreak of the condition are more likely to be positive for the presence of HSV than cultures from subsequent outbreaks.

There are also blood tests that can detect antibodies to the herpes viruses that can be useful in some situations. These tests are specific for HSV-1 or HSV-2 and are able to demonstrate that a person has been infected at some point in time with the virus, and they may be useful in identifying infection that does not produce characteristic symptoms. However, because false-positive results can occur and because the test results are not always clear-cut, they are not recommended for routine use in screening low-risk populations for HSV infection.

Other diagnostic tests such as polymerase chain reaction (PCR) to identify the genetic material of the virus and rapid fluorescent antibody screening tests are used to identify HSV in some laboratories.

Treatment of genital herpes

Although there is no known cure for herpes, there are treatments for the outbreaks. There are oral medications, such as acyclovir (Zovirax), famciclovir (Famvir), or valacyclovir (Valtrex) that prevent the virus from multiplying and even shorten the length of the eruption. Although topical (applied directly on the lesions) agents exist, they are generally less effective than other medications and are not routinely used. Medication that is taken by mouth, or in severe cases intravenously, is more effective. It is important to remember that there is still no cure for genital herpes and that these treatments only reduce the severity and duration of outbreaks.

Since the initial infection with HSV tends to be the most severe episode, an antiviral medication usually is warranted. These medications can significantly reduce pain and decrease the length of time until the sores heal, but treatment of the first infection does not appear to reduce the frequency of recurrent episodes.

In contrast to a new outbreak of genital herpes, recurrent herpes episodes tend to be mild, and the benefit of antiviral medications is only derived if therapy is started immediately prior to the outbreak or within the first 24 hours of the outbreak. Thus, the antiviral drug must be provided for the patient in advance. The patient is instructed to begin treatment as soon as the familiar pre-outbreak "tingling" sensation occurs or at the very onset of blister formation.

Finally, suppressive therapy to prevent frequent recurrences may be indicated for those with more than six outbreaks in a given year. Acyclovir (Zovirax), famciclovir (Famvir), and valacyclovir (Valtrex) may all be given as suppressive therapies.

Herpes can be spread from one part of the body to another during an outbreak.

  • Therefore, it is important not to touch the eyes or mouth after touching the blisters or ulcers.
  • Thorough hand washing is a must during outbreaks.
  • Clothing that comes in contact with ulcers should not be shared with others.
  • Couples that want to minimize the risk of transmission should always use condoms if a partner is infected. Unfortunately, even when an infected partner isn't currently having an outbreak, herpes can be spread.
  • Couples may also want to consider avoiding all sexual contact, including kissing, during an outbreak of herpes.
  • Since an active genital herpes outbreak (with blisters) during labor and delivery can be harmful to the infant, pregnant women who suspect that they have genital herpes should tell their doctor. Women who have herpes and are pregnant can have a vaginal delivery as long as they are not experiencing symptoms or actually having an outbreak while in labor.
Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 7/16/2014

Patient Comments

Viewers share their comments

Sexually Transmitted Diseases in Women (STDs) - Experience Question: What type of STD did you have?
Sexually Transmitted Diseases in Women (STDs) - Symptoms Question: Describe the symptoms you experienced with your STD.
Sexually Transmitted Diseases in Women (STDs) - Treatment Question: What kind of treatment, including medication, was used to treat your STD?
STDs in Women - HPVs and Genital Warts Question: How did you discover you had HPV or genital warts? Please share your experience.