Approximately 45 million Americans age 12 and older are infected with genital herpes. There are two types of herpes simplex virus, HVS-1 and HVS-2. Both strains reside in the dorsal root ganglia in the vertebral column and yield few signs or symptoms. When symptoms do surface, they typically appear as one or more blisters on or around the genitals or rectum. When the blisters break, they leave tender ulcers that may take two to four weeks to heal.
Herpes is caused by a viral infection but can be an elusive disease, as symptoms are not always present. The virus is very contagious and is spread through skin-to-skin contact and sexual fluids. The virus can be transmitted whether an individual has an outbreak or not, so a blood test and culture is recommended. Correct and consistent use of latex condoms can reduce the risk of genital herpes.
Types of Herpes
Herpes simplex 1
The herpes simplex 1 virus is typically found on the mouth and is also referred to as a fever blister or cold sore. The type 1 strain is very contagious and can be spread to other parts of the body.
Herpes simplex 2
The herpes simplex 2 virus is found on and around the genitals. Symptoms include small, fluid-filled blisters that can break and form crusty sores.
“Tingling in the [central] buttock area is actually a common way for dermatologists to [diagnose] genital herpes,” dermatologist Dr. Sandra Lee says. “Genital herpes is more prevalent in the population than you would think."
While anti-viral medications can shorten and prevent outbreaks, there is no cure for herpes. Once the virus is in your system, it hides in the nerve cells. Outbreaks can occur as seldom as once per year or so often that they seem continuous. What triggers these outbreaks is unknown, but stress is often considered a contributing factor. Doctors can prescribe anti-viral medications to help control the outbreaks.
OB-GYN Dr. Lisa Masterson explains that, for women, herpes can cause complications during pregnancy, which may lead to delivering via C-section and passing the virus to the baby.
If you have an outbreak, do not engage in sexual activities, even if using a condom. You and your partner should always get tested together before starting a sexual relationship.