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What is herpes?
Herpes is the name given to the group of herpes virus diseases, which affect the nervous system and skin. In particular, genital herpes is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) that is caused by the Herpes Simplex Virus. The infection manifests itself in often painful blisters around the genital areas, however some people never experience these and so will not realise that they have the virus.
How is the virus spread?
The virus is spread by skin to skin contact; it can enter through cracks in the skin or through the soft mucus membrane linings of the genitals.
- Through unprotected vaginal or anal sex with someone who has the infection
- Sharing sex toys that have not been washed or covered with a new condom every time they are used
- Skin to skin contact with the affected area of skin, when blisters or sores are present
- Your genitals touching someone else’s genitals even if there is no penetration, orgasm or ejaculation
The virus is most contagious when the blisters first appear before they have time to turn into scabs. It is important that as soon as you notice any blisters, pain or symptoms that you abstain from any sexual activity until these symptoms have disappeared again.
Symptoms to look out for include:
- Small blisters
- Itchy and painful skin
- Inflammation of the skin
- Raw painful ulcers which heal without any scarring
Some people may experience clusters of painful blisters and some people may only have one or two, these can easily be mistaken for an ingrown hair. After the initial infection symptoms may not appear for months or even years, therefore it is important to get regular tests for STIs, so that you can protect yourself and your sexual partners.
What is vaginal herpes?
Vaginal herpes, also known as genital herpes is an STI that, despite its name, affects the genital areas of both men and women. Herpes is spread by any sexual activity which includes contact with the genital area this includes vaginal and anal sex. Symptoms of vaginal herpes including small blisters may not appear for months or years after you have contacted the infection. That’s why it is important to get regularly tested for STIs and STDs (Sexually Transmitted Disease), especially if you have started a new relationship.
What is mouth herpes?
Oral herpes is caused by the Herpes Simplex Virus, it is an infection of the mouth, lips and gums which appears as small painful blisters. These blisters are usually referred to as cold sores or fever blisters and they can also occur on the roof of your mouth, tongue and insides of your cheeks. These blisters are usually accompanied by a fever and muscle aches which may last up to three weeks.
Is there a cure?
Genital herpes is a long term condition and at present there is not cure; the virus lays dormant in the body for some time and then becomes active again with reoccurring symptoms. These are manageable though with the help of creams and other medicines. Before a recurrence people can often feel pain, tingling or aching in the affected area, whether this is the buttocks, genitals or legs. Sometimes sores will not appear and you will feel pain around these areas.
Over time the recurrences of symptoms will become shorter and less severe. However this varies from person to person and some people may carry the virus without ever having an attack. Even so you can still pass on the virus even when it isn’t active, so it’s important to get tested after any unprotected sexual activity or when you start seeing a new partner.
Genital Herpes is passed to a person through cracks in the skin or through the soft lining of the vagina, urethra and rectum.
Herpes is caused by a strand of the herpes simplex virus; this is different to the strand that causes genital herpes. However cold sores are just as contagious and are spread by skin to skin contact.
No, herpes is a life-long condition that can be managed with a range of medical treatments.
Using a condom is one of the most effective ways of protecting yourself from STIs; however herpes is transferred through skin to skin contact. As condoms may not cover all of the affected area of skin, it is advisable to refrain from any sexual activity if you or your partner has affected areas of skin.