Genital herpes or HSV (herpes simplex virus)
There are two types of HSV. HSV type 1 and HSV type 2. Either type may cause genital infections but usually HSV 1 causes cold sores and fever blisters and is not related to sexual activity. Genital herpes infection is more common in females than in males. Most often, herpes is passed from one infected person to another through direct contact with a herpes sore or blister. This contact may happen during oral, vaginal, or anal sex but sexual intercourse does not have to take place because herpes is a virus that lives in the skin on or around the genital areas. Herpes can be passed at any time, even when symptoms are not visible.
Most people, both males and females, infected with HSV have no symptoms. When symptoms do occur, they are usually in the form of painful sores or blisters (called an outbreak) that can appear on the mouth or genital areas of the body. The virus is most contagious just before an actual outbreak and when sores are present. In many cases, flu-like symptoms are the initial symptoms of a herpes outbreak. After a person contracts HSV, if symptoms appear they usually occur during the first two weeks after infection. Outbreaks are most common during the first year of infection.
HSV can easily be passed from an infected person who has no signs or symptoms. Genital infections caused by HSV are preventable through
- abstinence (which means not having any vaginal, anal or oral sex)
- avoidance of genital skin-to-skin contact
- using condoms or dental dams the right way every time you have sex (can reduce the risk)
- limiting your partners
- avoiding alcohol or drug use because they may lead to risky sexual behavior
- talking to your partner(s) about their sexual history
Herpes simplex virus (HSV) in the newborn can be due to transmission during pregnancy. This mode of transmission occurs about 5 percent of the time and results in a condition called congenitally acquired HSV infection. This form of HSV infection can result in growth retardation, small head size (microcephaly), lesions on the skin and abnormalities of the eyes. Prenatally acquired HSV is most common, occurring 85 percent of the time, due to exposure as the newborn passes through the birth canal. Features of HSV can include lesions on the skin, mouth, and eyes; central nervous system symptoms such as lethargy, seizures, irritability, encephalitis, apnea, poor feeding, temperature instability and bulging “soft spot”; and liver and lung effects. The greatest risk to the newborn is when the mother has an outbreak resulting from a new infection near the time of delivery. This is because the mother has not yet built up enough antibodies to protect the baby and she will most likely be shedding virus during delivery. Other factors that increase risk of transmission include the amniotic membranes being ruptured for a prolonged period of time, use of scalp electrodes for fetal monitoring during delivery, and vaginal delivery (versus cesarean delivery). If treated early, many effects in the perinatal and postnatal forms can be reduced. Even with treatment, however, 4 to 29 percent of infected infants die around one year of age depending upon the form and severity of the disease.
Often times your healthcare provider can diagnose genital herpes by simply looking at your symptoms. For a definitive diagnosis providers can take a sample from a sore and test it.
HSV has no cure but medications are available to help prevent and shorten outbreaks.