Genital herpes is a viral infection caused by the herpes simplex virus. It is estimated that 80% of the UK population carry the virus. It is normally just one type of the virus that affects the area around the genitals, this viral strain is known as type 2 or herpes genitalis. An estimated 10-15 million people in the UK are carriers of the type 2 herpes, but only 2-3 million of them develop common symptoms such as sores and blisters in the pubic area.
How can genital herpes be transmitted to you?
Genital herpes is normally transmitted through sexual intercourse with an person who carries the virus. The virus transmits easily through skin-to-skin contact, which is why the virus is very likely to spread during sexual intercourse. There is a theoretical risk of getting a herpes type 2 infection through contact with towels or underwear that have been used by an infected person. However, after leaving the body the virus dies very quickly, which is why the risk of getting infected in other ways than through skin-to-skin contact is very low.
Weeping sores and blisters are most infectious
During the phase when the herpes soars are developing blisters and pus, the risk of transmission is at its highest. The virus is transmitted when pus from the sores comes into contact with unprotected skin. It is important to avoid spreading the pus and to take care of one’s personal hygiene in order to make sure that the sores do not spread to other areas around the genitals and become slow-healing. Read more about medication for treating genital herpes here.
A condom offers poor protection against genital herpes
The only way to protect oneself from getting infected is to avoid direct contact with infected skin on the genitals and the pubic area. A condom only covers a limited part of the penis and therefore the disease may be transmitted even though the sores are covered by a condom. However, a condom does provide some protection and is better than no protection at all.
The first stages of a genital herpes infection
An estimated 25% of infected persons develop symptoms, usually two weeks after exposure to the virus. The first symptoms are pain in the lymphatic glands and the groins, and are typically accompanied by fever and a weaker general health condition. After a few days, burning and itching will be felt in the area where sores and blisters will develop. Blisters appear and are filled with fluid, which will burst after 1-3 days and result in a big aching sore, typically around one centimetre across. The sore will be weeping pus for a few more days and will thereafter heal in about 1-2 weeks.
The majority of infected persons do not develop symptoms
One reason why so many people carry the virus is that only 25% of all carriers show symptoms. Despite the fact of having no symptoms, an infected person can still pass the virus on to other people although there is no formation of sores and pus.