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Genital herpes: a hidden disease

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During a person’s lifetime, some diseases may settle in without warning. While this is the case with genital herpes, it is normal to ask questions. Being well-informed will help you control its impact on your life and minimize the risk of transmission.

L’herpès génital : une maladie cachée

Genital herpes: what is it?

It is difficult to discuss genital herpes because of the sensitive nature of the subject. Genital herpes affects nearly 1 in 5 Canadians, which makes it one of the most widespread sexually transmitted infections (STIs) in North America. It is important to talk about it to reduce its rate of transmission.

Genital herpes is characterized by the outbreak of painful lesions generally located in the genital area, around the anus, and sometimes on the thighs or buttocks. This infection is caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV).

There are two types of herpes simplex viruses:

  • type 1 (HSV1), mostly responsible for herpes labialis (cold sores or fever blisters);
  • type 2 (HSV2), mainly responsible for genital herpes.

The majority of infections occur in adults between the ages of 20 and 40.  

What are the symptoms of genital herpes?

Many people don’t know that they have genital herpes because the symptoms may sometimes be very mild or non-existent and can be confused with blisters or other skin infections. On the other hand, symptoms could be severe during the first outbreak and appear as:

  • numerous blisters (small bumps on the skin filled with a clear liquid) in the genital or anal areas or even the buttocks or thighs;
  • fever;
  • swollen ganglia in the groins;
  • pain in the affected areas;
  • flu-like symptoms;
  • general discomfort;
  • etc.

When symptoms subside, the virus becomes inactive. When the virus is inactive, the disease is asymptomatic. When the virus becomes active again, some warning symptoms such as local tingling and itching may be experienced. Then, blisters reappear. However, during subsequent outbreaks, the symptoms are less severe than during the first one. Some people just have one episode of genital herpes in their lifetime while others will see its recurrence several times a year. There are triggers that set off an outbreak. The major ones are:

  • stress;
  • the sun;
  • fatigue;
  • other diseases;
  • menstruation;
  • pregnancy;
  • taking certain medications.

What is the mode of transmission?

Genital herpes is transmitted through skin contact with an infected area, mainly during vaginal, anal, or oral intercourse with a person who carries the virus. The risk of transmission is higher at the beginning of an outbreak when blisters are present. But the virus can also be transmitted when the infected person shows no symptoms. In addition, an infected person may see the virus spread from one part of the body to another. It can, for instance, spread from the genital organs to the eyes through the fingers. Genital herpes can also be passed on from mother to child at birth if the mother is a carrier of the virus, which can prove to be dangerous for the newborn.

How do you protect yourself and prevent genital herpes?

Unfortunately, there is no vaccine against genital herpes. However, there are other methods of prevention that you can use to minimize your risk of contracting this disease:

  • Using a condom. The condom protects you against STIs such as genital herpes. However, it does not completely eliminate your risk because the areas of the skin not covered by the condom are not protected from the herpes virus. 
  • Avoiding sexual relations with a person who is visibly infected.
  • Avoiding oral sex with a person who has cold sore (or fever blisters).
  • Using a condom during oral sex. To protect the female genitals, you can cut a condom lengthwise or use a dental dam (a thin square of latex).
  • Ask your partner if he/she has genital herpes or any other STI and inform him/her of your status as well.
  • Inform your doctor if you are pregnant or have genital herpes.

Is there any treatment for genital herpes?

Unfortunately, genital herpes cannot be cured. However, it is possible to reduce the number and severity of blisters and accelerate their healing by taking medications as soon as the first signs of the disease appear. Some people experience a number of outbreaks per year. In these cases, it may make sense to take medication daily to minimize this. Talk to your pharmacist. When you have an outbreak of genital herpes, here are some tips to ease your symptoms:

  • Don’t touch or scratch lesions. 
  • Don’t wear tight clothing.
  • Apply an ice bag on the lesions.
  • Pour water on the affected area when you urinate to lessen the pain.
  • Keep the lesions clean and dry.
  • Take an analgesic to reduce the pain (don’t hesitate to ask your pharmacist about it).

If you think you have genital herpes, it is important to talk to your doctor about it. Necessary tests will be performed to confirm the diagnosis. It does not mean the end of your sex life, but it is necessary to be informed and behave responsibly to prevent the transmission of the disease.

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