Detecting & Managing Genital Herpes
Genital herpes is a common sexually transmitted disease (STD) caused by the herpes simplex virus, usually the HSV-2 strain. It's spread through oral, anal and vaginal sex and affects more than 1 in 6 people ages 14 to 49 in the United States—nearly 17 percent of that demographic. Genital herpes is more common among women than men.
There's no cure for herpes, but treatment can help you better manage symptoms and reduce the risk of spreading it to other people.
Potential symptoms of genital herpes
Genital herpes may not surface any symptoms at all—at least not right away—and some people have worse or earlier symptoms than others, and it's difficult to predict how it will manifest individually. If you do have symptoms, which can appear two to 12 days after exposure, you may notice the following:
Small red bumps around your genitals
Tiny white blisters
Genital itching, pain or tenderness
Oozing or bleeding blisters
Tiny genital scabs
Pain with urination
Sores can also appear on your mouth after having oral sex with an infected partner. Blisters and sores associated with genital herpes often come and go.
During an initial herpes outbreak, you might experience flu-like symptoms such as muscle aches, fever, swollen lymph nodes in the groin and headaches.
Testing & diagnosis
It's a good idea to undergo STD testing periodically if you're sexually active and at risk of contracting any infections, including herpes. Risk factors include having unprotected sexual intercourse, having multiple sexual partners, a history of STDs and being female. Screening is particularly important for women who may become pregnant, as mothers can pass herpes and other infections to their babies during childbirth.
During herpes screening, your doctor will review your medical history, ask questions about your lifestyle and symptoms, and complete a physical exam to look for visible signs of herpes (blisters, sores, scabs and so on) or other STDs.
Your provider might swab genital sores to obtain a sample for laboratory analysis. If you feel like you're at risk, your doctor may give you a general health panel to test for other common STDs, too.
Managing genital herpes
There's no cure for genital herpes, but treatment can help you better manage your symptoms. Managing life stressors is one way to reduce the likelihood of outbreaks, but it's not always enough. Taking antiviral medications, such as acyclovir (Zovirax) and valacyclovir (Valtrex), can offer the following benefits:
Accelerated healing of genital sores
Reduced duration and severity of outbreaks
Lower chance of transmitting herpes to others
Reduced frequency of recurrence
Your doctor should personalize each genital herpes treatment plan, perhaps suggesting you take medication only when you have symptoms or that you take antiviral medicines every day. Herpes medications have few side effects and they're generally well-tolerated, but it's still important to be mindful that all medications come with risks and side effects, so keep an eye out for any new symptoms or changes to normal health.
If you have genital herpes, always practice safe sexual intercourse to avoid spreading the virus to other people. Because there's no cure, it's vital to use a latex condom correctly every time you have sex and avoid sexual contact during an outbreak—when you see blisters, sores or scabs—including a cold sore outbreak. Always tell your partner if you have genital herpes or any other STD.