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Genital Herpes

Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatments, Prevention

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Updated April 17, 2014

Genital herpes affects at least forty-five million people in the United States who are infected with the herpes simplex virus (HSV). According to the CDC, one out of five teenagers and adults is infected with genital herpes. Genital herpes is more common in women than in men affecting one woman out of every four. It's estimated that over 500,000 new cases of HSV occur every year. The good news is that the number of new cases of genital herpes is declining .

There are two types of herpes and both can affect the genitals and the mouth. HSV 1 most commonly occurs on the lips in the form of fever blisters and cold sores. HSV 2 most commonly appears in the genitals. Once a person is infected with HSV it remains for life and people can experience periodic episodes of active herpes.

What are the symptoms of genital herpes?

The symptoms of genital herpes can vary widely from person to person. When symptoms of genital herpes do appear during a first episode they usually appear within 2 to 10 days after infection and last an average of 2 to 3 weeks. Some of the earliest symptoms can include:
  • An itching or burning sensation
  • Pain in the legs, buttocks, or genital area
  • Vaginal discharge
  • A feeling of pressure or fullness in the abdominal area

A few days following the initial symptoms, sores or lesions erupt at the site of the infection. These sores can occur inside the vagina or on the cervix in women, as well as in the urinary passage in both men and women. Genital herpes lesions may first appear as small red bumps that develop into blisters which become painful, open sores. After several days these sores become crusted and then heal without scarring.

The first episode of genital herpes can also include symptoms such as:

  • fever
  • headache
  • muscle aches
  • urinary pain or difficulty
  • swollen glands in the groin area.

After genital herpes invades the skin or mucous membranes, the virus travels to the sensory nerves at the end of the spinal cord where it remains inside the nerve cells in an inactive state. Most people experience a monthly recurrence of symptoms. During a recurrent episode of genital herpes the virus travels along the nerves to the skin where it multiplies at or near the site of the original herpes lesions, causing new sores to appear.

Genital herpes can reactivate without any visible sores or lesions being present. During these periods of active virus, small amounts of the virus can shed at or near the site of the original lesions from genital secretions or from indiscernible lesions. Shedding occurs without any accompanying discomfort and may only last a day or two, but it is possible to infect a sexual partner during this time.

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