Reviewed By: Dr. Kurt Kloss, MD
Last Reviewed Date: Sep 25, 2018
Last Modified Date: Sep 25, 2018
Published Date: May 24, 2018
Genital herpes is a viral infection caused by either of two viruses, herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) and herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2). It is extremely common in the United States, with more than one of every six people between the ages of 14 to 49 infected with genital herpes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). So, what can be done about herpes? How is it treated? Is there a cure for herpes?
Herpes: The Basics
Genital herpes is a viral STD, or sexually transmitted disease, that can be spread from one person to another during vaginal, anal or oral sex. It can cause pain, itching and sores in and/or around the genital area. However, it is important to note that many people who are infected do not have symptoms, which is why, according to the CDC, most people who have herpes are unaware that they are infected. For people who do have symptoms, the first ones typically appear within 2 to 12 days of catching the virus. Symptoms during this phase of infection, called the primary stage of herpes, may include any of the following:
- One or more blisters on or around the genitals (vagina, penis, testicles), rectum or mouth. These blisters typically break open to become open sores that take a week or more to heal.
- Body aches
- Swollen glands, particularly in the groin area
- Vaginal discharge
- Bleeding between menstrual periods
- Pain while urinating
- Fatigue (feeling very tired)
After that initial outbreak, the virus usually becomes inactive, which is called the latent phase of the disease. However, since the virus remains in the body, it can reactivate periodically, causing many people to have recurring herpes outbreaks. Symptoms of repeat outbreaks, which may happen several times a year, are typically less severe than that first one and may include:
- Itching, tingling or pain in areas where outbreaks happened before
- Aches and pains in the legs, back or buttocks
- The appearance of herpes sores in or around the areas of the initial outbreak
How to Find Out if You Have Herpes
If you have noticed symptoms that cause you concern or suspect that you may have been exposed to the virus by a past or current sexual partner, finding out whether you have been infected as soon as possible, is important. Firstly, it is essential to your own sexual health to be aware of a herpes infection. Secondly, it is important to ensuring that you are not spreading the virus to others. So how can you find out?
By getting tested for herpes. This is something every sexually active person should be doing regularly. According to CDC screening guidelines, most sexually active people should be tested for common STDs once a year, since anyone who has vaginal, oral or anal sex is at risk for these infections.
Getting tested is a quick and simple process. Tests that are commonly used to detect herpes virus in the body include:
- Herpes blood tests – These tests look for antibodies to herpes simplex virus (HSV) types 1 and 2 in a blood sample. Antibodies are made by the immune system, resulting from exposure to these viruses, so a positive result can indicate herpes infection. However, it is important to note that antibodies can take a few weeks to build up to detectable levels after a person has been infected with herpes. For that reason, people who think they may have been exposed to the virus should have testing done 3 to 4 weeks after that suspected exposure, and if results are negative, get tested again after another 12 weeks has passed to ensure accurate results.
- Viral culture tests – This test can only be done if you have active symptoms, since it involves using a swab to take a sample of the fluids inside a sore, which is then processed by a lab to look for the viruses that can cause herpes.
- Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests – These are blood tests that look for the DNA of the herpes viruses in a blood sample to detect infection and/or determine whether a herpes infection is caused by HSV type 1 or type 2.
Is There a Cure for Herpes? Treatment for Genital Herpes
The short answer to that question is no, herpes cannot be cured yet. However, it can be controlled very successfully in most cases. That means that a positive screening test or a herpes diagnosis is not the end of the world, nor does it have to mean the end of your sex life.
The primary method of treatment used to manage genital herpes is antiviral drugs, which can offer relief in many ways. Among the potential benefits of these drugs are:
- Faster healing rate for sores during the initial herpes outbreak
- Aid in reducing the severity of symptoms during repeat outbreaks and shorten the time it takes for those symptoms to clear
- Less frequent outbreaks
- Greatly reducing the risk of passing the herpes virus along to sexual partners
According to Medical News Today, antivirals may be prescribed in a couple of different ways to help control herpes. In some cases, they are used only when outbreaks happen. This is called episodic treatment and is generally used to treat patients who have fewer than six outbreaks over a year. Typically, a 5-day course of antiviral medication is prescribed each time herpes symptoms appear.
Suppressive antiviral therapy is the other common way antiviral medications are used to treat herpes. For this type of treatment, patients are asked to take antiviral drugs every day. The goal is to prevent future outbreaks and minimize risk of spreading the disease to a partner. Generally, this form of treatment is most likely to be recommended for herpes sufferers who have frequent outbreaks and/or severe ones that significantly impact their quality of life.