Healthy Living

Genital Herpes: The Top 10 Questions

Is genital herpes curable?

There is no cure for genital herpes. Once you have herpes, you will have the virus for the rest of your life. However, in most cases, outbreaks become fewer, weaker, and less painful over the course of a few years. There are also certain medicines that can help prevent or shorten the herpes outbreaks. If you consume these medicines regularly as prescribed by your doctor, you will experience fewer herpes outbreaks. It also reduces the duration of an outbreak and helps sores heal more quickly. The possibility of you passing the virus to your sexual partner also decreases.  

Consult your doctor and ask about certain antiviral medications including famciclovir, acyclovir, and valacyclovir that can help relieve herpes symptoms. These medicines are known to reduce the duration and severity of herpes outbreaks if started within 72 hours of the appearance of visual lesions. These medications can be consumed during outbreaks, or even daily to prevent future outbreaks. To know your treatment plan, talk with your doctor. Your doctor will prescribe you specific medications and their corresponding dosage, which are based on the number of outbreaks you experience per year.

Is genital herpes itchy?

Yes, genital herpes can be itchy. Many people with herpes experience tingling, itching, or pain in the area where recurrent lesions develop. These symptoms are referred to as a “prodrome” and they usually appear a day or two before the herpes outbreak. So when you experience these symptoms, it is better to assume that the herpes virus is active and can spread through skin-to-skin contact.

After the first herpes episode, further outbreaks occur in some people from time to time, which are referred to as recurrent infections. These recurrences are usually less severe and shorter than the first outbreak. While the first episode may last for several days or even weeks, recurrent outbreaks usually last for 7-10 days only. Most people do not experience any symptoms from the infection such as fever and do not even feel ill during a recurrence. However, itching or tingling in your genital area for 12-24 hours may indicate the beginning of a recurrence.

How can genital herpes be prevented?

There are certain preventive measures you should follow to reduce the risk of genital herpes. The following measures can help prevent the spreading of herpes simplex virus (HSV) to others:

  • Abstain from sex

If you have genital herpes, you should avoid having sex until symptoms are present, which means that if you can see any blisters or open sores around your genital area, you should abstain from sex (vaginal, anal, and oral). The reason is that at this point, your viral infection is highly contagious and you can easily pass the virus to your partner. You should also avoid sharing sex toys as it can also pass the infection. If you still share, wash them thoroughly and cover them with a condom. You should also avoid having oral sex if your partner is having cold sores around the mouth.

  • Always use a condom

When you engage in any kind of sexual intercourse, be it vaginal, anal, and oral, always use a condom. Even after your symptoms have disappeared, the virus can still be transmitted to your partner as HSV survives within the nerves of your skin. Although using a condom may help prevent genital herpes, it is still not a foolproof preventive measure. It is not 100 percent effective in preventing STDs. Moreover, since condoms can only cover the penis, if the virus is present in or around the anus, it can still spread to the other partner through sexual contact.

  • Ask your partner

Most people who have genital herpes don't realize sooner that they are infected. Hence, ask your partner whether he or she has had any other STD. People with a history of sexually transmitted diseases are more vulnerable to having genital herpes. Although it may feel awkward asking certain things about your beloved partner, it is how you can stay honest in your relationship and prevent the possibility of transmitting the infection.

  • Limit the number of sexual partners

The fewer sexual partners mean the fewer risks of getting infected. So if you have less sexual partners in your lifetime, you are less likely to be exposed to the herpes virus.

How common is HSV type 1?

HSV type 1 is extremely common. In fact, it has been found that as much as 90 percent of American adults are exposed to HSV-1. Herpes simplex virus type 1 causes sores around the mouth and lips. Although it can also affect the genitals, the majority of genital herpes cases are caused by herpes simplex virus type 2. HSV-1 is transmitted through sores on the skin or oral secretions that can be passed on through oral sex, kissing, or sharing personal objects such as utensils, razors, and toothbrushes. HSV-1 can still be transmitted even if the sores are not present.

The following are some common signs and symptoms of HSV-1:

  • tingling, itching, or burning around the mouth or nose (often a few days before the appearance of blisters)
  • small and painful blisters filled with fluid, around the lips, or corners of the mouth 
  • sore throat
  • fever
  • swollen lymph nodes in the neck

Does genital herpes go away on its own?

Yes, genital herpes goes away on its own after some time and you don’t necessarily need any treatment. A herpes episode usually lasts about one week, but may also last for as long as a month. However, asking for medical help at the beginning of an outbreak can reduce the outbreak's duration, hasten the healing process, and reduce the risk of transmitting the virus to other people. The treatment also helps prevent future recurrences of the infection.

When you are first diagnosed with genital herpes and you have symptoms such as sores, your doctor will give you a brief course of antiviral therapy for 7 to 10 days. This therapy gives some relief from the symptoms and prevents the sores from getting worse. Your doctor may extend the duration of the therapy if the sores don't heal in that time. Thus, you must follow the treatment as prescribed by your doctor if you want to get relief as soon as possible.

How long does a herpes outbreak last?

A person who is infected with herpes may not even realize it until he or she passes it onto someone else, or when the virus reactivates. However, in most cases, the primary outbreak occurs within 2 to 20 days after contracting the virus. When a person is first infected with herpes and shows visible symptoms, the duration of the primary outbreak is often the worst and extremely painful. The primary episode can take 3 to 6 weeks to completely heal the sores. Following recurrent outbreaks are usually less severe and typically last for 3 to 14 days. The frequency comes less often with each recurring episode.

During the primary outbreak, the person may experience the following symptoms:

  • tingling, itching, and burning at the site where the sores will appear
  • small and painful blisters filled with fluid that usually appear 24-72 hours after the tingling and itching sensations
  • headaches, muscle aches, fever, nausea, and flu-like symptoms
  • painful urination if you have genital herpes

Secondary or recurring outbreaks clear up faster than the primary outbreak. A recurring outbreak usually takes 3 to 14 days to clear up. During the secondary outbreak, the person may experience the following symptoms:

  • tingling and itching at the site, indicating that the virus is active
  • small, painful, and fluid-filled blisters begin to appear
  • shallow wounds or ulcers may appear as the blisters break
  • the ulcers lead to scabs that take some time to heal
  • your skin starts becoming dry and flaky as it heals

A recurrent attack usually occurs within six months of the initial herpes outbreak and you may experience 2 to 3 more outbreaks within a year. If you have more than five outbreaks in a year or less, your infection would be considered chronic. In this case, you may require medical attention to help you manage the symptoms.

How does genital herpes affect the rest of your body?

Genital herpes symptoms usually appear 2 to 14 days after a person is exposed to the virus. However, this case isn’t always true. Sometimes, people experience their first symptoms several months or even years after being infected. Once you have caught the herpes virus, it will stay in your body for the rest of your life, which means that you cannot completely cure it, but can only manage the duration, frequency, and severity of the outbreaks. After the primary herpes episode, the virus becomes dormant. Then, it can become active again from time to time, causing blisters and sores.

A person with genital herpes can spread the infection to other parts of the body as well through direct contact. If you touch your sores and then touch other parts of your body, the sores may develop there, too. Hence, a proper hygiene is very important while you are having a herpes outbreak to keep the rest of your body safe.

Some people have many recurring outbreaks each year. Some of the reported reasons known to trigger outbreaks include:

  • fatigue
  • emotional stress
  • a physical injury such as an irritation of the genital area
  • other infections such as colds or flu
  • new sex partners
  • any condition that weakens the immune system
  • menstruation

Can you get rid of a herpes outbreak overnight?

No, you cannot get rid of a herpes outbreak overnight, but you can manage its symptoms. Sores can be less visible and less painful. Treatment with antiviral therapy can help people stay symptom-free for a longer period of time. These drugs can also reduce the frequency, severity, and duration of symptoms when they appear. The following are the three major drugs commonly used to treat genital herpes symptoms:

1) Zovirax (Acyclovir)

2) Famvir (Famciclovir)

3) Valtrex (Valacyclovir) 

All these medicines are in pill form. Severe cases are usually treated with the intravenous (IV) drug, acyclovir.

What are the treatment plans for managing genital herpes?

  • Initial treatment

When you're first diagnosed with genital herpes, you will be given a brief course of 7-10 days of antiviral therapy. This treatment course will not let you get rid of the herpes outbreak overnight, but it will give you some relief by preventing the symptoms from getting worse. If the sores don't heal in that time, your doctor may extend the duration of the course. After the initial treatment, talk with your doctor about the best way to take antiviral therapies. There are two options: intermittent treatment and suppressive treatment.

  • Intermittent treatment

Your doctor may prescribe you an antiviral drug in case you have another flare-up. This type of treatment is called as an intermittent therapy. You can take the prescribed medications for 2 to 5 days as soon as you realize that an outbreak is coming or see visible sores.

  • Suppressive treatment

If you experience herpes outbreaks more often, the doctor may prescribe you an antiviral drug to be taken every day. This treatment is called a suppressive therapy. If a person experiences more than six outbreaks a year, a suppressive therapy can reduce the number of outbreaks by 70-80 percent. Thus, there is no way in which you can get rid of a herpes outbreak overnight, but you can reduce its intensity, frequency, and duration with the help of medications.

How long will it take for herpes medications to work?

The time when herpes medications take effect depends on several factors. They include the severity of the outbreak and how quickly you take the medicine after realizing that an outbreak is going to occur. Doctors generally prescribe herpes medications such as Valtrex for around 7 to 10 days. This is the time that herpes blisters start to heal. However, if your doctor prescribes it for an extended period, you should take follow it, even if your symptoms improve quickly.

Doctors usually prescribe the drug for a shorter period of around five days to individuals who have an experience of recurring herpes outbreaks or are familiar with the symptoms that appear before an outbreak. Many people get some relief from the symptoms within 2 to 3 days with blisters getting healed after about a week. Again, the sooner a person starts taking herpes medications during an outbreak, the less severe and shorter the outbreak becomes.