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Genital Herpes

What Is It?
Genital herpes (pronounced: hur-peez) is caused by a virus called herpes simplex (HSV). There are two different types of herpes virus, which are called HSV-1 and HSV-2. Most forms of genital herpes are HSV-2, however, a person with HSV-1 can transmit the virus through oral sex to another person's genitals.

HSV-1 causes the cold sores or fever blisters that appear on or around the mouth, lips, or nose of many people. Most people have a cold sore at one time or another. It can be transmitted (passed from person to person) by sharing eating utensils or from kissing someone with a cold sore.

The other type of herpes, HSV-2, is a sexually transmitted disease. It causes herpes sores in the genital area, and it is transmitted through intimate sexual contact (vaginal, oral, or anal sex), especially from unprotected sex. Because the virus does not live outside the body for long, you cannot catch genital herpes from an object, such as a toilet seat.

What Are the Symptoms of a Genital Herpes Outbreak?
An individual who has been exposed to the genital herpes virus may not be aware of the infection and may never have an outbreak of sores. However, if a person does have an outbreak, the symptoms can cause significant discomfort. A person would first notice itching or pain, followed by sores that appear a few hours to a few days later. The sores, which may appear on the vagina, buttocks, anus, scrotum, or penis, start out as red bumps that soon turn into red, watery blisters. The sores may make it very painful to urinate. The sores then open up, ooze fluid or bleed, and then heal within the next 2 to 4 weeks. The entire genital area may feel very tender or painful, and the individual may have flu-like symptoms including fever and swollen lymph nodes. If a person has an outbreak in the future, the outbreaks will tend to be less severe and shorter in duration, with the sores healing in 3 to 4 days.

How Long Until You See the Symptoms?
A person who has been exposed to genital herpes will notice genital itching and/or pain about 2 to 20 days later. The sores usually appear within days afterward.

What Can Happen?
After the herpes blisters disappear, a person may think the virus has gone away - but it's actually hiding in the body. Both HSV-1 and HSV-2 have the ability to stay hidden away in the body until the next herpes outbreak, when the virus reactivates itself and the painful sores return.

Over time, the herpes virus can reactivate itself again and again, causing discomfort and episodes of sores each time. Usually a person has about four to five herpes outbreaks each year - but in some people, the number of outbreaks will lessen over time. There is no cure for herpes; it will always remain in the body and can always be passed to another person with any form of unprotected sex. This is the case even if blisters aren't present on the genitals. Most cases of genital herpes are transmitted when symptoms are not present.

Genital herpes also increases the risk of HIV infection. This is because HIV can enter the body more easily whenever there's a break in the skin (such as a sore) during unprotected sexual contact. In addition, if a pregnant woman with genital herpes has an active infection during childbirth, the newborn baby is at risk for getting herpes infection. Herpes infection in a newborn can cause meningitis (an inflammation of the membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord), seizures, and brain damage.

How Is It Prevented?
The only surefire way to prevent genital herpes is abstinence (not having sex). Teens who do have sex must properly use a latex condom every time they have any form of sexual intercourse (vaginal, oral, or anal sex). Remember that herpes is passed sexually even if no signs and symptoms of an outbreak, such as sores, are present.

How Is It Treated?
If you think you may have genital herpes or if you have had a partner who may have genital herpes, you need to see your family doctor, adolescent doctor, or gynecologist for a diagnosis. Right now, there is no cure for genital herpes, but a doctor can prescribe antiviral medication to help control recurring HSV-2 and clear up the painful sores. The doctor can also tell you how to keep the sores clean and dry and suggest other methods to ease the discomfort when the virus reappears.

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