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Genital Herpes

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Genital Herpes

Genital herpes in Ireland

Genital herpes is one of the most common viral sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) in the world but it is rarely dangerous compared with other STDs. In 1994, 173 cases of genital herpes were reported in Ireland; in 1997, this figure had risen to 211.

What is genital herpes?

Genital herpes is caused by herpes simplex type two (HSV-2). HSV-1 usually causes cold sores or lesions in the mouth or on the lips and face. Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted disease that produces painful blisters on the genitals of both men and women.

How is genital herpes passed on? 

The infection can be passed during sexual intercourse or by other intimate contact with the genitals, mouth, or rectal area. You may also spread it with your hands if they become contaminated. Once you're infected, the virus remains in your body for the rest of your life. Usually it is inactive, which means that it is not causing symptoms. However, the virus may become active again and the disease may recur. Outbreaks may occur in times of physical or emotional stress or trauma.

What are the symptoms of genital herpes?

Symptoms of genital herpes usually begin within a couple of weeks following infection, but symptoms may also appear later or not at all — some people infected with herpes have no symptoms. The signs of infection vary but may include:

  • Painful sores/lesions on the genitals — these usually appear first as tiny clear blisters and then look like small pink or red shallow sores that are tender to the touch. The blisters usually appear in clusters but it is possible to have just a single blister.
  • Fever.
  • General muscle pains and aches.
  • Vaginal discharge.
  • Painful urination.
  • Inability to urinate normally.
  • Pain during intercourse.
  • Itching.
  • Tender, enlarged lymph nodes in the groin.

How can I protect myself from genital herpes?

  • If you do not have herpes infection, you can eliminate your risk entirely by having sex only with a non-infected partner who has sex only with you.
  • Ask your partner(s) whether they have had herpes — remember that herpes can be spread from areas not protected by condoms (groin, thigh, and abdomen).
  • If your partner has herpes, you must avoid intercourse during your partner's recurrences until the area is completely healed and new skin has formed.
  • Use latex condoms and spermicidal foams every time you have intercourse between recurrences.
  • Avoid oral-genital and oral-anal sex with someone who has cold sores— these are caused by a related virus (HSV-1) that can infect the genitals.

How long does an outbreak last?

The first outbreak of herpes usually lasts 7—10 days, although it can continue for a few weeks. During this time the lesions will shrink and dry up.

How is genital herpes diagnosed?

Your doctor may be able diagnose herpes on the basis of your history and examination of the lesion. He/she may also take a sample of the lesion or the liquid from the lesion and have it tested for the herpes virus.

Some hospitals also perform a blood test for herpes antibodies. However, a blood test will not tell you whether you have an active outbreak or which herpes virus you have been infected with.

How is genital herpes treated?

Genital herpes cannot be cured, but the earlier the treatment is given the more likely it is to prevent or reduce the severity of an attack. Antiviral drugs will help to reduce the pain of the lesions and encourage faster healing. Analgesic drugs (painkillers) may also help to soothe the discomfort.

What can I do?

  • Take all the medicine as prescribed and attending all follow-up appointments recommended by your doctor.
  • Use a disposable glove to apply medication — this will help to avoid spreading the infection to other parts of your body.
  • Wear loose clothing, preferably cotton, to allow air circulation and to avoid pressure on the skin, which may cause more blisters.
  • Do not share towels or clothing.
  • Do not use perfumed soaps, sprays, feminine hygiene deodorants, or other chemicals in the genital area.
  • Avoid excessive sunlight and heat, which may cause more blisters.
  • Do not have any sexual contact while the lesions are active.
  • A warm, salty bath can be very effective in treating the itch, discomfort, and difficulties with urination that can occur during an acute attack.

What is the outlook?

Once the virus enters your body, it stays there for rest of your life. Some people never have another attack after the first and others suffer several attacks every year, although the severity of the attacks will lessen gradually and the periods between recurrences will grow longer. About half of those who have a first episode never have a recurrence.

Those who have very frequent recurrences may be advised to take long-term low-dose anti-viral medications to reduce the frequency of recurrences.

What about herpes and pregnancy?

If a pregnant woman has an attack of genital herpes when the baby is due, a caesarean section may be recommended to prevent the baby being infected during delivery.

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