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Genital Herpes Simplex

What is genital herpes?

Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) that is caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). It is spread through oral, vaginal, or anal sex. It may be spread even if you do not see blisters. It can also be spread to other areas of your body, including your eyes, by touching open blisters. If you are pregnant, it may be spread to your baby while he is still in your womb or during vaginal delivery.

What increases my risk for genital herpes?

  • Unprotected sex: This includes oral, vaginal, and anal sex without the use of a condom.

  • Adolescent sex: Adolescents may have an immature immune system. A young girl's cervix is also immature and more susceptible to STIs.

  • Multiple partners: Sex with multiple people increases your risk for genital herpes. This includes having more than one sex partner or having a sexual partner who has other sexual partners.

What are the signs and symptoms of genital herpes?

The most common symptoms are blisters that appear on your genital area, thighs, or buttocks. The blisters will open, leak fluid, and then dry up (crust over). Usually these sores will go away without leaving a scar. Other symptoms may include any of the following:

  • Redness, burning, itching, or tingling in your genital area

  • Fever or chills

  • Headache, body weakness, or muscle pains

  • Swollen lymph nodes in your groin

  • Sore throat or loss of appetite

  • Fluid or blood leaking from your vagina

  • Pain when you urinate

How is genital herpes diagnosed?

Your caregiver will ask you questions about your health and sexual history. He will need to know when your symptoms started. Tell him about any STIs you or your partners may have. You will have a physical exam so your caregiver can look closely at the area that has blisters. Caregivers may need to do a pelvic exam to check your vagina and internal sex organs. You may also need any of the following:

  • Blood tests: This may be done to check for HSV. You may also have this test if you have no symptoms but have a partner with genital herpes.

  • Discharge sample: Your caregiver may need to take a sample of discharge from the blisters. It may be looked at under a microscope or sent for a culture to see if HSV grows.

How is genital herpes treated?

There is no cure for genital herpes. Your caregiver may give you any of the following medicines to control symptoms:

  • Antivirals: These help decrease your symptoms and shorten the time you have the blisters. You may also need to take them daily to prevent blisters. Take them as directed.

  • Topical anesthesia: This may be given to help numb the area and decrease pain.

  • NSAIDs: These medicines decrease swelling, pain, and fever. NSAIDs are available without a doctor's order. Ask your caregiver which medicine is right for you. Ask how much to take and when to take it. Take as directed. NSAIDs can cause stomach bleeding and kidney problems if not taken correctly.

What are the risks of genital herpes?

Genital herpes may cause pain in your genital area or when you urinate. If you have genital herpes during pregnancy, your baby is at risk of getting herpes. The infection may cause your baby to weigh less at birth, or damage his eyes and brain. Genital herpes may also increase your risk of a miscarriage (loss of your baby before he is born). HSV puts you at risk for human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). An HSV infection can spread and cause swelling of other organs, such as your brain, lungs, and liver. HSV may also spread to your brain and spinal cord, causing serious infections called encephalitis and meningitis.

How can I manage my symptoms?

The following are things you can do to be more comfortable when your infection is active:

  • Keep the blisters clean and dry: Wash them with soap and warm water, and dry gently.

  • Wear cotton underwear and loose clothing: This may help to keep the blisters dry and keep clothes from rubbing.

  • Ice: Ice helps decrease pain. Use an ice pack, or put crushed ice in a plastic bag. Cover it with a towel and place it on the affected area for 15 to 20 minutes every hour or as directed.

  • Heat: Heat may also help decrease pain. Apply heat on the area for 20 to 30 minutes every 2 hours for as many days as directed. A warm bath may also help.

What increases the risk that symptoms will come back?

  • Stress and fatigue: Your symptoms may come back if you are very tired or stressed.

  • Menstruation: You may break out in blisters when you have your monthly period.

  • Illness: This may weaken your immune system and cause you to break out into blisters.

  • Trauma: This includes physical or mental injury, and surgery.

How can I prevent the spread of genital herpes?

  • Use condoms: Use a latex condom when you have oral, genital, and anal sex. Use a new condom each time. Use a polyurethane condom if you are allergic to latex. Ask your caregiver for more information about condoms.

  • Try not to touch your blisters: If you need to touch the area, wash your hands before and after you touch the area. If you have blisters around your mouth, do not kiss anyone. Do not breastfeed if you have blisters on your breast.

  • Talk to your partners: Tell your partners that you have been diagnosed with genital herpes. Do not have sex with someone until he knows that you have genital herpes. Ask your caregiver for ways to tell partners about your infection.

  • Talk to your caregivers: Tell your caregivers that you have genital herpes. If you are pregnant, your baby may need special monitoring. Inform your caregiver of your condition to avoid spreading the infection to your baby. You may also need to deliver your baby by cesarean section (C-section). A C-section is surgery to remove your baby from your body.

Where can I find more support and more information?

  • American Social Health Association (ASHA)
    P.O. Box 13827
    Research Triangle Park , NC 27709
    Web Address: http://www.ashastd.org
  • Division of STD Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
    1600 Clifton Rd.
    Atlanta , GA 30333
    Phone: 1- 800 - 232-4636
    Web Address: http://www.cdc.gov/std

When should I contact my caregiver?

Contact your caregiver if:

  • You have chills or a fever.

  • You have painful blisters on your penis, vagina, anus, or mouth.

  • Fluid or blood is coming out of your genitals.

  • You have trouble urinating.

  • Your symptoms stay the same or get worse.

  • You have trouble chewing or swallowing.

  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

When should I seek immediate care?

Seek care immediately of call 911 if:

  • You think you are pregnant and you are bleeding from your vagina.

  • You have trouble breathing.

  • You have a seizure.

  • Your neck is stiff.

  • You have trouble thinking clearly.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your caregivers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

© 2014 Truven Health Analytics Inc. Information is for End User's use only and may not be sold, redistributed or otherwise used for commercial purposes. All illustrations and images included in CareNotes® are the copyrighted property of A.D.A.M., Inc. or Truven Health Analytics.

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