Herpes is a common sexually transmitted disease (STD) that any sexually active person can get. Most people with the virus don’t have symptoms. It is important to know that even without signs of the disease, it can still spread to sexual partners.
Signs and Symptoms
Most people with genital herpes don’t know they are infected because they do not have any symptoms.
If symptoms do occur, they usually appear within 2 weeks after being exposed. Most of the time, symptoms of genital herpes appear as one or more painful blisters on or around the genital area or rectum. The blisters break, leaving tender ulcers or sores that may take 2 to 4 weeks to heal the first time they occur.
Other signs and symptoms during the first outbreak may include:
- A second crop of sores, or
- Flu-like signs and symptoms, including fever, headache, and swollen glands.
Outbreaks can happen again weeks or months after the first, but they’re usually shorter and less severe than the first outbreak. Although the infection stays in the body forever, the number of outbreaks tends to decrease over a period of years. If you think you might have herpes, talk to your doctor. Your doctor can help you get tested.
The only way to be completely sure you won’t get genital herpes is to not have vaginal, anal, or oral sex. If you are sexually active, you can lower your chances of getting herpes by being in a long-term mutually monogamous relationship with a partner who does not have herpes, and by using latex condoms the right way every time you have sex.
Herpes symptoms can occur in both male and female genital areas that are covered by a latex condom. But keep in mind that outbreaks can also occur in areas not covered by a condom, so condoms may not fully protect you from getting herpes.
How is Genital Herpes Diagnosed
There are several ways your doctor can determine whether you have herpes. Sometimes, your doctor can diagnose herpes just by looking at your symptoms.
But the only way to tell for sure if you’re infected with herpes simplex virus (HSV) is to get tested. There are two ways to get tested:
- If you have a herpes sore, your doctor can take a sample from the sore, or
- Your doctor can order herpes blood tests.
Results from the initial blood test aren’t always clear, and a re-test 3 to 4 months later may be needed. Herpes blood tests may be useful, especially if:
- You have had symptoms before, but don’t currently have a blister or sore to be cultured, or
- You have a partner who has genital herpes.
If you’re worried you might have herpes, see your doctor. Your doctor can discuss herpes testing options and may have an easier time diagnosing genital herpes if you’re seen as soon as you get a sore.
How Can Genital Herpes Be Prevented
The only way to be sure to avoid getting genital herpes is to not have vaginal, anal, or oral sex.
If you are sexually active, you can do the following things to lower your chances of getting herpes:
- Only have sex with 1 partner who has tested negative for herpes,
- Use latex condoms the right way every time you have vaginal or anal sex, and
- Use a condom, dental dam or other barrier method every time you have oral sex.
Keep in mind that herpes symptoms can also occur in areas that are not covered by a condom, so condoms may not fully protect you from getting herpes.
If you have herpes, you should tell your sex partner(s) and let him or her know the risk involved. Using condoms may help lower this risk but it will not get rid of the risk completely. Having sores or other symptoms of herpes can increase your risk of spreading the disease. Even if you do not have any symptoms, you can still infect your sex partners.
While there is no cure for herpes, there is a herpes medicine that can be taken daily and makes it less likely that you will pass the infection on to your sex partner(s).
I’m pregnant. How could genital herpes affect my baby?
If you are pregnant and have genital herpes, it is even more important for you to go to prenatal care visits. You need to tell your doctor if you have ever had symptoms of, been exposed to, or been diagnosed with genital herpes. Sometimes genital herpes infection can lead to miscarriage. It can also make it more likely for you to deliver your baby too early. Herpes infection can be passed from you to your unborn child and cause a potentially deadly infection (neonatal herpes). It is important that you avoid getting herpes during pregnancy. If you are pregnant and have genital herpes, you may be offered herpes medicine towards the end of your pregnancy to reduce the risk of having any symptoms and passing the disease to your baby. At the time of delivery your doctor should carefully examine you for symptoms. If you have herpes symptoms at delivery, a ‘C-section’ is usually performed.
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