Genital herpes: everything you need to know


Genital herpes: everything you need to know

Genital infections are something that a lot of people are ashamed of. Yet, various genital ailments are actually quite common. Research suggests that every fourth person on our planet suffers from an STI. One of such is the genital herpes. In today’s intimate health episode we’ll discover the causes, symptoms, treatment, and prophylaxis of this infection. Chop-chop! Leave the embarrassment outside and come on in! There are no taboos here, remember? :)

Dominika Olchowik

Published: 16.06.2021 7 minreading time

Genital herpes 101 illustration

Illustration: Jarek Danilenko

What is genital herpes?

It’s one of the most commonly diagnosed sexually transmitted infections (STI). It’s caused by the herpes virus (herpes simplex virus) type 2: HSV-2. Many people don’t realise that they’re asymptomatic carriers of the virus. They present no clinical features of the infection. The virus nests in the ganglions and might activate due to:

  • stress,

  • immune deficiency,

  • menstruation,

  • hypo- or hyperthermia (during sunbathing, for instance),

  • hormonal imbalance (which is why the virus often activates in pregnant people).

How do you get herpes?

Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted infection and is most frequently contracted during sex (vaginal, oral, or anal) with the carrier. The virus penetrates the organism through chafes and micro wounds in the mucosa, and then replicates in the outer layers of the skin, causing inflammation.

Additionally, the risk of contracting genital herpes rises if:

  • you don’t use barrier contraception during sex (using condoms doesn’t exclude herpes infections but significantly reduces the likelihood of getting them),

  • your organism is weakened,

  • you’re already carrying the herpes simplex virus type 1 (that is, oral herpes virus); it’s possible to get infected by transferring the virus from the mouth to the eyes or genital areas.

You can read our articles on other infections: vaginal yeast infection and bacterial vaginosis.

Genital herpes symptoms

As the HSV can’t be completely eradicated from the organism, and genital herpes might be a recurrent infection, we distinguish two stages of the condition:

  • primary infection (the first herpes outbreak) – it’s the first time you get infected; usually, it’s intense and, apart from skin symptoms, it’s accompanied by: weakness, fever, chills, swollen lymph nodes (mainly the inguinal ones).

  • recurrent infections (after the initial outbreak) – after the HSV’s initial skin penetration and the cessation of symptoms of the primary infection, the virus travels to the sensory neurons in the sacral region of the spine. It remains “dormant” there but, due to the aforementioned factors, it can reactivate – it’s unusual for the infection to recur spontaneously.

Genital herpes can affect all genders

In case of people with vaginas, the virus-induced skin lesions usually appear on the vulva, clitoris, and the opening of the vagina. Sometimes, herpes might occur on the thighs, belly button, cervix, and in the anal area. Vaginal herpes might cause purulent discharge. If the herpes blisters are located inside the vagina and there’s no additional, worrying symptoms, the infection is often undetected.

In people with penises, the genital herpes virus usually has a milder course. The lesions form usually on the glans and shaft of the penis, less frequently on the buttocks, thighs, perineum, or anus. Painful urination might occur as well. However, the most aggressive and cumbersome type of herpes is the one on the testicles. It’s painful and requires prolonged treatment.

The initial genital herpes symptoms usually appear 2 to 10 days from infection. They include:

  • itching and stinging of the genitals,

  • painful pus-filled blisters around the perineum and genitals.

The blisters build up and burst after 2 weeks, leaving painful ulcers and erosions on the skin, which crust over with time.

Genital herpes in pregnant people

During pregnancy it’s irrelevant which body parts are infected by herpes – the cold sores might be just as disturbing and dangerous as its genital counterpart.

A viral genital infection in pregnant people might lead to an intrauterine infection. Most often it results in premature childbirth and abnormalities in the foetus’ development (hydrocephalus, microcephaly, meningitis). 

The treatment of genital herpes during pregnancy revolves chiefly around curing it before childbirth. However, it’s usually advised that a person has a Caesarean birth. It’s because during natural labour a newborn might come into contact with the HSV lesions. It can cause a peri- or postnatal infections (such as neonatal herpes).

Genital herpes and HIV

Researchers claim that carrying the HSV-1 or HSV-2 increases the likelihood of contracting HIV. In those already infected with human immunodeficiency viruses, genital herpes outbreaks recur more frequently and have a more severe course. The lesions are more widespread, deeper, more painful, and might stay there for a couple of weeks. The herpes sores facilitate the transmission of both the herpes simplex virus and HIV. Estimates say that for people with genital herpes it’s three times more likely to contract HIV.

Genital herpes treatment

Modern medicine still struggles with the treatment of herpes simplex virus. All medicines aiming at the stimulation of the immune system to completely eliminate the virus (vaccines) are still in testing.

For this reason, the treatment of genital herpes is still based on alleviating the symptoms. It’s crucial to make an appointment with a specialist if you see any worrying signs of herpes. After the diagnosis the gynaecologist will implement adequate treatment. The treatment itself usually lasts 5 days. However, it can be prolonged by the doctor if the infection has a more severe course or the patient is pregnant.

Two ways of treating genital herpes

  • symptomatic treatment – relies on applying antiviral oral medicines. If the symptoms of genital herpes intensify, the treatment is supplemented by topical antivirals; 

  • suppressive therapy – relies on a long-term application (over the course of a few months) of the aforementioned medicines in a steady pattern. The rarer the herpes outbreaks, the lesser the damage they cause and smaller the risk of transferring the virus to someone else. Possible recurrences of the herpes infections are less frequent and have a milder course.

Apart from professional treatment, it’s advisable to implement certain practices into your daily life. The treatment of genital herpes might be quicker and more effective if you combine pharmacological treatment with some home remedies.

  • During a herpes infection wear light, cotton underwear so as not to irritate possible ulcers and blisters. People who suffer from vaginal herpes might experience pain while using tampons or menstrual cups. This is why it’s advisable to use cotton pads or natural pantyliners;

  • a bath with geranium oil might be nice. It has an antibacterial and antiviral effect; it deals not only with genital herpes, but is also used to treat acne, oedema, and shingles;

  • it’s advisable to take half baths 3 to 5 times a day (with bearberry leaves), especially after the onset of initial herpes symptoms;

  • you can also apply some aloe gel on the lesions. It reduces pain and accelerates the healing process. It’s important to remember that all such relievers are to be applied with single-use applicators!;

  • keep in mind that you should abstain from sex during treatment.

Proactive actions in battling genital herpes

We already know what causes the genital herpes infection. We’ve learnt about its causes and course. What about proactive actions then? Truth be told, it’s not an easy task as we don’t always realise when the transmission occurs. Remember that the carriers might be asymptomatic!

How to avoid genital herpes

  • The first, golden rule – don’t use someone else’s towel and don’t switch underwear! It’s best to keep them for personal use only! :) And, above all – make sure they’re clean and wash them regularly;

  • sexually active people, even if they use oral birth control, should always consider using barrier contraception during sex (also the oral one!);

  • it’s advisable to abstain from sex during an ongoing, visible genital herpes infection – it’s the sort of “once more for the backrow” type of thing ;) We’re talking not only about infecting your partner with HSV-2; the herpes simplex virus, causing cold sores, is also a contraindication to sex because of the possibility of its transmission thorugh touch;

  • by talking (as simple as that!). It’s somehow related to the previous bullet points. Despite the fact that it’s sometimes difficult to open up, you shouldn’t hide the infection from your partner. Taking medicines or regular doctor’s appointments make it more difficult for the virus to spread, yes, but it’s worth giving your partner a heads-up about the potential risk and trying to discuss the issue of birth control and protection together.

To reduce the risks and save yourself from contracting genital herpes (or prevent its more severe course), it’s important to take care of your body from the inside. We know that an ill-attuned and nutrients-poor diet can contribute to the weakening of our organisms and worsening of our moods. And it’s just one step from an infection! The best push and catalysts for our immune system are antioxidants (which have an anti-inflammatory effect).

  • The aforementioned antioxidants include: vitamins A, E, and C. They’re to be found in fresh fruit and vegetables (especially in citrus fruit, berries, pumpkins, carrots, nuts, and all sorts of oils);

  • a hefty amount of vitamin B will do wonders in keeping your skin in good shape. Its natural reserves are in meat, wholemeal, and dairy products;

  • to boost your immune system, try eating pickled foods. They contain good bacteria which replicate in your intestines, building up and enhancing your immunity. Speaking of the intestines – their functioning is best regulated by fibre which can be found in vegetables, bran, and nuts.

Genital herpes might significantly influence our health, mood, and quality of sex life. Which is why, as always, we encourage you to monitor your condition, observe it, and report to a specialist for professional care and tips concerning potential treatment.


Dominika Olchowik
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