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Herpes

Herpes is a virus. Herpes 1 causes cold sores around the mouth. It is also possible to get Herpes 1 on the genitals from oral sex. Herpes 2 causes similar sores on the genitals. There is no cure for herpes but it can be prevented.

Herpes is passed through skin-to-skin contact with an infected area. This can be from oral sex, anal sex or vaginal sex. You can get herpes around your mouth from kissing a person who has herpes sores or from oral sex. You can get genital herpes from intercourse or oral sex. The virus can be transmitted from an infected man or woman. A pregnant woman with genital herpes can also pass the virus to her child during delivery. If a woman has open sores at the time of her labour, she should have a C-section delivery to protect her child. An infected person can pass on the virus even when she or he has no visible infection.

Symptoms
Many people with herpes have no symptoms at all. Some have only mild symptoms. And others have visible, painful recurrent sores. These usually occur inside or around the mouth, on the vagina, vulva, cervix, anal area, thighs or penis.

Two to 20 days after infection, you may feel a tingling or itchiness in the infected area. A day or two after this, tiny blisters may appear. The tops of the blisters come off, leaving small sores that usually take about two weeks to heal. They are very painful. The first infection may also have more serious symptoms:

  • fever
  • joint pain
  • flu symptoms
  • painful urination
  • enlarged tender lymph nodes in the groin
  • headache

The first infection is usually the worst. After the first infection, the virus becomes inactive but remains in the body around the nerve endings. The blisters may recur throughout a person's life but are usually less painful and heal faster. How often the blisters appear varies from person to person. Blisters can be triggered by:

  • stress
  • a poor diet
  • a sunburn
  • an injury to the affected area
  • a lower immune system

Diagnosis
Your doctor can test for herpes by taking a tissue scraping sample or taking a swab of an active sore or blister. A blood test can also test for herpes, though this test is in many cases not readily available.

Possible Complications
For the most part, herpes is not considered a serious health risk. However, in rare cases, it can cause serious complications. It can cause blindness if the virus gets into the eye. Although the likelihood is very small, newborn babies can become very ill if they are infected during the passage through the birth canal. Sometimes herpes sores can get infected with bacteria.

Treatment
There are no treatments that cure herpes. However, there are now anti-viral drugs and ointments that can speed up the healing process, particularly during the first infection.

To manage your symptoms and prevent spreading the infection to other parts of your body:

  • Try taking a warm bath or using a cold compress when you have an outbreak, to relieve the pain.
  • Keep the infected area clean and dry.
  • Wear cotton underwear and loose clothing.
  • Be sure to wash your hands after touching an infected area.
  • Avoid touching your eyes or mouth after touching an infected area.
  • Eat a nutritious, well-balanced diet, get enough sleep and minimize your stress. A healthy lifestyle can strengthen your immune system and help prevent an outbreak.

If you are pregnant or planning to become pregnant, tell your doctor, so that precautions can be taken at the end of your pregnancy and during delivery to protect the baby.

What if I Have Frequent Outbreaks?
There are medications your doctor can prescribe that can be taken on a daily basis to help reduce the number of recurrences. These oral medications can also reduce the chance you’ll infect your partner.

Should My Partner Be Checked or Treated?
Let your partners – male or female – know about your infection so they can use condoms or dental dams. Your sexual partners need to avoid contact with your sores to avoid becoming infected.

How Can I Protect Myself from Herpes?

  • Use condoms and dental dams. Condoms have been shown to reduce the risk of transmission from men to women but not eliminate it; condoms are less protective for men.
  • Never touch a herpes sore. Avoid kissing or having sex with a partner who has herpes sores.
  • Abstain during active outbreaks.
  • Always practice safer sex to reduce your risk of this and other infections. It is possible to transmit herpes even when sores are not present.

 

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  • A publication of:
  • Women's College Hospital