Genital herpes is a common and highly contagious sexually transmitted disease. According to WHO data, about half a billion people worldwide are living with genital herpes, and women account for 63.75% of people affected. (1)
One out of every five women aged 14 to 49 years has genital herpes in the US compared with one in 10 men. (2)
Most people who have genital herpes don’t know they have it. And yet, it can lead to severe complications. It is therefore essential to raise awareness about genital herpes in women.
This article will discuss everything you should know about genital herpes in women, including how it can affect a pregnancy.

1-What causes genital herpes?

Genital herpes is caused by the herpes simplex virus. There are two strains of herpes simplex virus: herpes simplex type 1 (HSV-1) and herpes simplex type 2 (HSV-2). You can get herpes by having vaginal, oral, or anal sex with someone infected by the herpes simplex virus. HSV-2 mainly causes genital herpes. However, HSV-1, which is best known for causing cold sores, can also create genital lesions if you receive oral sex while your partner has a cold sore. You can find herpes viruses in bodily fluids such as saliva, semen and, vaginal secretions.

2- What are the risk factors for genital herpes?

Several factors may increase someone’s chance of getting genital herpes:

  • Being a woman_Women are at higher risk of getting genital herpes because of their anatomy. Due to the fragility of the vaginal tissue, small tears may occur during sex and make it easier for the virus to get in.
  • Having multiple sexual partners
  • Having unprotected sex
  • Age_The risk is highest among teens and young adults who are more likely to have risky sexual behaviors.
  • Race_ African-American women are at high risk for genital herpes.
  • Bacterial vaginosis_There is consistent evidence that BV increases the susceptibility to the acquisition of HSV-2 in women. (3)
  • Many studies had proven that genital herpes was associated with an increased risk for HIV infection and vice versa.

3- What are the symptoms of genital herpes?

Genital herpes is usually asymptomatic. According to some studies, 65 to 90% of patients with genital herpes are not aware of it. (4)
However, an asymptomatic person can transmit the disease. It usually takes about two to twelve days after the contact to show up if symptoms do occur. Sometimes, symptoms may not appear until months or years after the infection. Genital herpes symptoms are called outbreaks. During the first outbreak, which is usually the worst, some people may experience flu-like symptoms such as muscle aches, fever, swollen lymph nodes, and headaches.

Common symptoms of genital herpes include the following.

  • One or more blisters in the genital areas, anus, buttocks, thighs, the cervix, or anywhere that came in contact with the viruses
  • The blisters can break and turn into painful sores called ulcers.
  • Over a period of days, the sores change to crusted spots before they finally heal.
  • Itching or burning around the genitals
  • Painful urination

In most cases, the symptoms clear-up themselves within one to two weeks, but the virus stays in the body, and recurrent outbreaks may occur. Outbreaks usually become shorter and milder over time.

4- How is genital herpes diagnosed?

Your health care provider can diagnose genital herpes through visual examination of the blisters and sores. They may also take a sample from the sore with a swab and test it to confirm the diagnosis. A blood test can help diagnose the herpes simplex virus before you experience any symptoms.

5- Can genital herpes go away?

There is no cure for genital herpes. Once the herpes simplex virus infects you, it stays in your body. The symptoms heal but can reappear from time to time. Many factors can trigger subsequent outbreaks:

  • Sexual intercourse
  • Menstrual periods
  • Fatigue
  • Stress
  • Weak immune system as seen in HIV, chemotherapy, and diabetes
  • Exposure to sunlight or cold

Fortunately, antivirals drugs can help prevent or shorten the outbreaks. There can also control the outbreaks by taking the following steps:

  • Using a lubricant during sex
  • Know what triggers your outbreaks and avoid it
  • Get plenty of sleep
  • Take care of your immune system
  • Pay attention to what you eat and drink

6- What is the treatment for genital herpes?

There is no treatment to eradicate the virus; however, antiviral drugs can help reduce the severity and duration of symptomatology and the frequency of recurrences. Doctors usually use one of the following antivirals: acyclovir, famciclovir, and valacyclovir. The type of treatment depends on the profile of each patient. For example, treatment may be episodic for a patient with minimal recurrence. For people with recurrent outbreaks, treatment may be taken daily to reduce the risk of transmission of genital herpes to a sexual partner.

7- Genital herpes and pregnancy, what to expect?

Having genital herpes during pregnancy poses a risk to the unborn baby. Some studies have linked genital herpes to pregnancy complications such as miscarriage and preterm birth. The virus can rarely be transmitted from mother to child during pregnancy. However, the risk of spreading the infection is higher during delivery and depend on many factors:

  • the mother contracts genital herpes in late pregnancy
  • she has an active outbreak around the time of your delivery

When the baby becomes infected, it is called neonatal herpes or birth-acquired herpes. Babies who have neonatal herpes can experience severe complications such as blindness, brain damage, seizures and, death. Although neonatal herpes is a severe condition, it is also very rare. Most pregnant women with herpes have healthy babies.

Women who had genital herpes before getting pregnant have a very low risk of spreading the virus to their babies because they already have antibodies temporarily passed to the baby to protect them against the virus. Besides, they are many strategies to minimize the risk of passing herpes to the unborn during delivery. These strategies include:

  • having a c-section when there is an outbreak
  • using antiviral drugs

Therefore, it is crucial to inform your doctor if you ever had genital herpes or are concerned that you may have recently contracted the disease.

You should avoid kissing your baby if you have cold sores. Always wash your hands with soap and water before and after each feeding session. The herpes virus can’t pass through breast milk. But it can spread through the sore and lesions on your breasts. If you spot a sore, don’t feed your baby from that breast.

8- Overcoming genital herpes stigma

Genital herpes is a common STD, yet no one talks about it as it carries a lot of stigmas. There are a few reasons why there is so much stigma around genital herpes:

  • Genital herpes is acquired sexually, and our society portrays people with STDs as dirty, promiscuous, and cheaters.
  • It has no cure.
  • Genital herpes is widely misunderstood.

The biggest threat caused by genital herpes is not related to the pathology of the viruses themselves but the shame and embarrassment that people with positive diagnoses face. Many people are still struggling with herpes stigma, which affects their mental health, quality of life, and relationship. The stigma also discourages people from getting screened for genital herpes.

To overcome herpes stigma, we need to talk about it and make people understand that a diagnosis of herpes is not a death sentence. With the treatment options available, it is possible to have a sex life without putting at-risk partners. Thus, it is important to unlearn the shame around herpes to increase testing and treatment.

9- How to reduce your risk for genital herpes?

If you’re sexually active, there are a few steps you can take to protect yourself and others from the herpes virus.

  • Use a condom every time you have sex.
  • Avoid having sex with a partner who has sores on their genitals.
  • Use dental dams during oral sex.
  • Limit the number of sexual partners you have.
  • Don’t receive oral sex from a partner who has a cold sore.
  • Avoid having sex under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
  • Ask your partners about their sexual history before engaging in any sexual activities.


References

  1. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/herpes-simplex-virus
  2. https://www.womenshealth.gov/a-z-topics/genital-herpes#:~:text=Genital%20herpes%20is%20more%20common,men%20ages%2014%20to%2049.&text=A%20woman’s%20anatomy%20(body)%20puts,easier%20to%20get%20genital%20herpes.
  3. https://academic.oup.com/cid/article/37/3/319/434192
  4. MARY JO GROVES, MD. Wright State University Boonshoft School of Medicine, Dayton, Ohio. Am Fam Physician. 2016 Jun 1;93(11):928-934
  5. https://iv.iiarjournals.org/content/23/5/839.full
  6. https://www.cdc.gov/std/herpes/stdfact-herpes.htm
  7. https://www.cdc.gov/std/herpes/stdfact-herpes.htm
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About the Author

Hermione M.

My name is Hermione. I am the founder of WomenH and I write about women's health, wellness, mental health, and personal growth. I created this platform to inspire women to take care of themselves mentally, physically, and emotionally to become their best selves. Thank you for stopping by.

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