Genital Herpes (herpes simplex 2) - An Overview

Now don't confuse this sexually transmitted disease with herpes simplex 1. Herpes simplex 1 are facial cold sores. The strain of herpes complex type 2 (HVP) is a sexually transmitted disease of the genitals, and is transmitted by direct skin contact.

So what is it?

It is a viral infection that is spread through sexual contact. Unfortunately this is not an infection that can be protected by condoms (although they may reduce the likelihood). This is because the sores can develop at the base of the penis or at the outer labia and condoms do not always protect this area as they only cover the penis.

If you have been in contact with this virus the incubation period can take from a few days to two weeks for the first episode to occur. Once the sores have disappeared, another episode may take weeks, months or years to re-occur. This is because the virus is latent, which means that it still silently remains in the cells in the infected area, but produces no symptoms. The virus is more likely to come back if the infected person is immuno-compromised (such as being on anti-cancer drugs, or if HIV positive), or if the person is just run down (e.g. has the flu). Other precipitators are sunlight, trauma to the infected area, fever, and emotional stress, along with other factors.

What are the symptoms?

  • Begins with an itching / tingling sensation in the area of the genitals
  • Small, fluid filled blisters erupt around the genitals, thighs and buttocks.
  • Blisters will dry and ulcerate
  • Crusts will form on the surface
  • Flu like fever
  • Backache
  • Swollen glands
  • Malaise
  • Anorexia (this does not mean anorexia nervosa, just a loss of appetite).
  • Pain during sexual intercourse
  • Typically the sore will last between two to three weeks

    Typically the first episode is the worst, and recurrent episodes should not be as severe.

    Diagnosis

    Often diagnosis of the HSV infection is based upon the individuals patient history and the type of symptoms. It is usually easy for a doctor to confirm this infection by a visual examination, this does not matter if it is the primary infection (the first infection), or a recurrent one. The problem with diagnosing this infection when there is no sore present, is that the antibodies (the body's immune system that destroys the virus) does not remain in the blood, but instead in the sores and the nerve cells. Therefore to make an accurate diagnosis, a doctor will need to take cultures and smears from the lesions to confirm an accurate diagnosis.

    Treatment

    Unfortunately there is no cure for this infection. Treatment is the only way to control the outbreaks. Although the good news is that the treatments that are currently being made are much more effective than those years ago, so we can only assume that more advances in effective treatments in the future will be made. Currently a vaccine to prevent the development of herpes is being researched which is good news, although it may be a while before it is approved for human trial.

    The most effective treatment on the market at the moment is an antiviral drug acyclovir; this drugs helps to shorten the duration of the infection if used at the initial phase, but does not cure the episode. It is however a breakthrough for the HSV virus. It is also advisable to keep the lesions clean and dry, and use analgesics such as paracetamol or aspirin to control any pain or fever.

    Prevention

    Unfortunately condoms cannot always protect you from this viral infection. This is because the sores can be in areas where the condom does not cover. This disease is transmitted via skin to skin. The best way to avoid contracting this nasty infection, is to get to know the person you are going to have sex with, during foreplay feel for any bumps or what may feel like any abnormalities. Try and keep some light in the room, so that visually you can have a bit of a peak to see if everything looks normal. If you are with someone who already has this disease, give them heaps of support, as it's an awful thing to know that they have it for life. Just ensure at the time of any outbreaks of the sores that you do not have sex, or make skin contact around the infected areas.

    Louise Ganey (RN)
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