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sexual health pages
What is it?
Genital herpes is caused by infection with a virus called Herpes simplex (HSV). There are two strains, HSV-1 and HSV-2, both of which can cause genital herpes and cold sores in the mouth area. Infection with the virus does not always result in symptoms, but if it does so these usually consist of blisters and sore areas on the skin surface.
How common is it?
Four out of five adults carry HSV-1 and about one in five carries HSV-2. All will shed the active virus from time to time, either from the mouth or genital area. However, most people (about three quarters) carrying the virus are unaware that they're infected, because they have no symptoms.
How can I tell if I have genital herpes?
In most people, symptoms are mild or nonexistent. If symptoms do occur,
they typically include itching/ burning/tingling of the skin, followed
by redness and small blisters which break open to form little sores.
The blisters can appear on the penis or anal area, or on the vaginal
lips for women. They can also be inside the urethra, rectum, vagina
and on the cervix. The first outbreak can last two or three weeks
and often feels like 'flu, with muscle aches, headaches, swollen glands
and burning on passing urine. If you get your first episode of herpes
in the anal/rectal area, this can cause quite severe discomfort,
and an anal discharge.
At present, the only way of confirming that you have either HSV- 1 or HSV-2 is by taking a swab from a blister or sore in the lip or genital areas. In the future, there may be a new blood test which can reliably diagnose each strain of the virus - this is at present limited to a research tool.
How is it transmitted?
Herpes is transmitted by direct contact, including genital-to-genital,
mouth-to-mouth, mouth-to-genital and genital-to-mouth contact. Herpes
is most infectious during outbreaks, from the first signs of burning/tingling
until the skin has completely returned to normal. Sometimes the virus
can be active, but not cause visible sores or other signs of infection.
This is called "asymptomatic shedding"; research has shown
that, on average, this happens about 1-4% of the time (ie about 4-15
days in a year). Although there is much less virus on the surface of
the skin than when visible sores occur, it is still possible to transmit
herpes to a partner if direct contact occurs at this time.
What treatment is available?
During an outbreak, keep the affected area as cool and dry as possible. Bathe the area in tepid salty water or take a cool shower. If it's practical, leave the sores exposed to dry out. If you have sores around the anus, make sure you keep your stools soft by either taking plenty of dietary fibre and fluids, or use a stool softener such as lactose. Protect the area with a little vaseline before going to the toilet - and wash afterwards.
Although there is no drug available to kill the virus outright, acyclovir is a prescription drug which is used in two situations; it helps greatly in shortening first outbreaks and, secondly, it may also be taken daily by the very small group of people who experience frequent, prolonged or severe recurrences. Acyclovir cream is much less effective, but like any cool substance, it feels soothing.
How can I prevent outbreaks?
Keep a record of when you have herpes outbreaks, as you may begin to see a pattern of trigger factors. Many people find that recurrences occur when they're run down, under stress or when the skin gets irritated due to friction or tight clothing. Sunlight and sunbeds may also induce an outbreak. If you're HIV-positive, you may get more frequent outbreaks - acyclovir can help to reduce their frequency, but there have been reports of drug-resistant strains in this group of people. If you do see a pattern of trigger factors, try to adjust your lifestyle to avoid them.
How should I tell my partner?
Before you tell your partner, make sure that you yourself are clear
about the facts and feel confident. Put ano/genital herpes into perspective
- it is identical to cold sores in the mouth area, basically a nuisance
skin condition caused by a virus which is carried by 20% of the population
in the case of HSV-2 and 80% in the case of HSV-1 You may wish to
the facts over with a specialist sexual health doctor or health adviser.
For further information on this and a range of other important sexual health issues, contact the GUM Clinic or Gay Men’s Health.
GUM Clinic, Level 4, Lauriston Building, Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh.
Phone (0131) 536 2103
Images courtesy of the Steve Retson Project
Last updated 20th May 2004
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