Genital herpes simplex virus is a common, chronic viral infection that can cause painful blisters in the genital area. There are two types of herpes, HSV-1 and HSV-2. HSV-1 is commonly known as “oral herpes,” or “cold sores” and HSV-2 is commonly known as “genital herpes.” However, oral herpes or cold sores caused by HSV-1 can spread to the genitals during oral sex, which is why some cases of genital herpes are actually from HSV-1. The World Health Organization estimates that over 67% of the population under the age of 50 have HSV-1, and that 90% of people who are infected with HSV-2 actually don’t know that they have it.
Genital herpes is transmitted through skin to skin contact with infected individuals during vaginal, oral, or anal sex. The most common symptoms associated with genital herpes are several burning or stinging blisters in the genital area, fever, headache, or trouble urinating. Genital herpes is diagnosed by testing a sample of fluid from one of the blisters for the virus. If that fluid does contain the virus, treatment can be started with an antiviral medication. Some common antiviral medications used to treat genital herpes include valacyclovir (Valtrex) or acyclovir (Zovirax). There is a blood test available for HSV to check for antibodies to the virus, but it is not used for routine screening. This is because if the person is asymptomatic and does not have active sores, they would not need treatment even if they had a positive blood test.
Herpes does not have a cure. The blisters associated with genital herpes can take over a week to completely heal. Once a person is infected with herpes, they can have outbreaks again without additional exposure to the virus. However, the first outbreak is usually the most painful, and there are medications to prevent future outbreaks. The chance of transmitting genital herpes can be reduced by wearing a condom the correct way during each sexual encounter.