How to deal with genital herpes

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Approximately 20% of American women are infected with the genital herpes virus. OB/GYN Dr. Jennifer Wu of Lenox Hill Hospital in New York explains what you need to know about identifying and coping with genital herpes.

How to deal with genital herpes

About 1 in 5 women and 1 in 6 men in America are infected with genital herpes. What do you really know about genital herpes? Do you understand what causes herpes, how to treat it and how to avoid it? Here are answers to some important questions that will help you better understand genital herpes.

What is genital herpes?
Genital herpes is caused by herpes simplex virus, type 2. It is a sexually transmitted disease that is transmitted by skin-to-skin contact, usually during sexual intercourse. However, one-third of genital herpes is caused by herpes simplex virus, type 1. Which is the type that is associated with cold sores or fever blisters. People with this type of herpes can transmit the disease through oral sex. Young, sexually active men and women are most at risk for contracting genital herpes. Because there is an ease of transition from male to female, more women then men are affected with the disease. Unfortunately, genital herpes can never be cured. But it can be controlled.

What does a herpes outbreak look/feel like?
People that have the virus will often have outbreaks with blisters that break open and become tender ulcers.
The level and severity of outbreaks differs from person to person. The large majority of people will have few outbreaks. But some people may never have had an outbreak their entire life even though they’ve been infected. However, they are still a carrier and can unknowingly transmit the disease to their partner. Others might have one outbreak and then never have another one. And some people might have severe, reoccurring outbreaks.

How long does it take for the blisters to heal and eventually go away?
It can take as long as two weeks before the blisters completely heal and go away. During that time people should avoid sexual contact. Unfortunately, people can also transmit the disease when they are not having an outbreak or right before an outbreak.

If you have genital herpes are there any pre-symptoms that occur that might tune you in that an outbreak is headed your way?
Often people have outbreaks when they are very stressed out. Usually the first year is the worst. It’s when you have the most frequent number of outbreaks. After that first year, typically the outbreaks start to decrease in their severity and frequency.

How do you treat genital herpes?
The most common way to treat herpes is with oral medication and topical creams to help ease the pain of the symptoms and help shorten their duration. If a person has very painful and frequent outbreaks suppression therapy may work best. Suppression therapy is best described as a daily pill that helps keep away the outbreaks and shorten the symptoms.

What are the most serious consequences for women with genital herpes?
Pregnancy presents the most serious issue for women with genital herpes. Here’s why: if she has a herpes outbreak while she is pregnant she could transmit it to her infant. If an infant contracts the virus it is quite serious, the baby can develop meningitis or other really serious infections from it. Usually if a woman has an outbreak during labor her doctor will strongly recommend she have a c-section because that will help to decrease the chance of her transmitting herpes to her infant.

Transcript

I'm Denise Richardson for howdini.com. What do you really know about genital herpes? Do you understand what causes herpes, how to treat it, and how to avoid it?

 

Here to answer those questions and more is gynecologist, Dr. Jennifer Wu. Thank you so much for being with us. What is genital herpes?

 

Genital herpes is caused by herpes simplex virus. And patients that have genital herpes will often have outbreaks with blisters that then break open, that become tender ulcers. Some patients may have herpes but not have these outbreaks.

 

How widespread is herpes in America? I hear the statistics are startling.

 

Well, about one in five women and one in six men are infected with herpes simplex.

 

And getting worse?

 

No, actually getting better.

 

So, who is most commonly affected?

 

Young, reproductive age men and women. Actually, more women than men. Because there's an ease of transmission from male to female.

 

And can you be a carrier and not know it?

 

People have been infected and not had the outbreaks and unknowingly transmitted it to a partner.

 

Can genital herpes ever be cured?

 

It isn't curable with the medicines that we have today. But we do have medication to shorten outbreaks and help to lessen the severity of symptoms.

 

And so, it's reoccurring?

 

It can be. It can be. Some patients may never have an outbreak their entire life, even though they've been infected. Some patients may have one outbreak. And unfortunately, some patients may have several outbreaks.

 

And so, how do you treat it?

 

So for a first outbreak, patients will usually go to the doctor, and we'll give them oral medication and sometimes some topical creams to help ease the pain of the symptoms and to help shorten the duration of symptoms. If a patient has frequent outbreaks or very painful outbreaks, then we'll talk about suppression therapy, meaning a daily pill to help keep away those outbreaks and to help shorten the duration of outbreaks when they do occur.

 

And how long does it take for the blisters to heal and for them actually to go away?

 

It can take as long as two weeks before they completely heal and go away. During that time, patients should avoid sexual contact.

 

How is genital herpes transmitted?

 

It's usually by skin to skin contact, usually during sexual intercourse. We do know that one third of genital herpes is actually caused by herpes simplex type one, which is the type that's associated with cold sores or fever blisters. It's very common. And it can be transmitted through oral sex.

 

Unfortunately, patients can also shed virus occasionally when they're not having outbreak, or right before an outbreak. And they can thus infect their partners that way.

 

When it comes to genital herpes, are there gradations of the disease from the simplest form to the most difficult?

 

Patients may be tested at some point or another in their life, just when they're having an STD work up and find out they're infected, but they've never had an outbreak.

 

Other patients may have one outbreak that they seek treatment for it, and then they never see another outbreak their entire life. Unfortunately, the large majority of patients will have a few outbreaks, and they'll be quite painful. They involve blisters that open up to be tender sores.

 

Are they most likely to have it reoccurring in that way for the rest of their lives, or for just periods in their lives?

 

Usually, the first year is the worst, when you have the most frequent number of outbreaks. And then, the outbreaks tend to decrease with severity and in the number of outbreaks as you progress.

 

For the majority of women who have genital herpes, what can happen?

 

Well, actually the most serious consequences are probably when the woman is pregnant. Because if she gets an infection with herpes during pregnancy, she could transmit it to her baby. Usually, when women have an outbreak in the genital region during labor, we advise them to have a C-section because that'll be safer and help to decrease transmission to the infant.

 

And the infant, if it's born and has genital herpes, what would the impact be on that infant?

 

It can be very serious. They can get a meningitis. They can get a really serious infection from it.

 

Dr. Wu, thank you so much for being with us. I'm Denise Richardson for howdini.com.

meet theexpert
  • Dr. Jennifer Wu

    Dr. Jennifer Wu Obstetrician-Gynecologist Dr. Jennifer Wu is a practicing board-certified obstetrician-gynecologist in New York City. She is a Fellow of the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology and a member of the American Medical Association and the New York Country Medical Society. more about this expert »

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