Genital herpes is a contagious viral infection of the genitals caused by the Herpes simplex type 2 virus, which is caught by sexual contact with someone who already has the disease. It is possible, but unlikely, for the virus to be caught in hot spa baths and from a shared wet towel.
If sores are present, there is a good chance of passing the disease on, but a patient is also infectious for several days before a new crop of sores develop.
Condoms can give limited protection against spreading the disease. If a condom is worn, a woman can more easily pass the infection to a man than vice versa, and the overall risk is reduced by 75%. Normally it is easier for men to pass the infection to women.
Once a person is infected with the virus, it settles in the nerve endings around the vulva or penis, and remains there for the rest of that person’s life. With stress, illness or reduced resistance, the virus starts reproducing and causes painful blisters and ulcers on the penis or scrotum (sac) in the male; and on the vulva (vaginal lips), and in the vagina and cervix (opening into the womb) of the female. The first attack may occur only a week, or up to some years, after the initial infection. An attack will last for two to four weeks and then subside, but after weeks, months or years, a further attack may occur. Women are affected more severely and frequently than men. The incidence of gynaecological cancer is increased in women with the infection and in rare cases it can cause encephalitis (brain infection).
If a baby catches the infection from the mother during delivery, it can cause severe brain damage in the child. For this reason, if a woman has a history of repeated herpes infections, she may be delivered by caesarean section.
The infection is diagnosed by taking a swab from the ulcer or a blood test.
Antiviral tablets (eg. … valaciclovir, aciclovir, famciclovir) will control an attack, but must be started within 72 hours of its onset. If appropriate, the medication can be taken constantly for months or years to prevent further attacks. Good control is possible with modern medications.
A person taking antiviral medication long term to prevent attacks of genital herpes can still pass the infection on to a sexual partner, but the overall risk is reduced by 50%.
Without any treatment, the average time for attacks to stop coming is four years, but recurrences may still occur decades later at a time when the patient is stressed or has another illness that reduces overall resistance to infections.