Answers to common questions about genital herpes

How to recognize genital herpes?

Typical of genital herpes are complaints such as painful cold sores on the genitals. In men, penis, foreskin, and scrotum may be affected, in women’s labia, vagina, and cervix. But there are also less typical symptoms possible, for example, blisters on the anus or the thighs. At the first outbreak often swell the lymph nodes in the groin.

Usually, a herpes infection triggers but no or barely perceptible symptoms. Then it can easily be mistaken for minor skin injuries, ingrown hair or fungal disease. Some skin changes due to herpes viruses are scarcely visible or occur on body parts that are difficult to see. It is estimated that up to 90 out of every 100 people who carry a genital herpes virus in the body do not know about it.

How are the viruses transmitted?

Herpes viruses are transmitted through skin-to-skin contact. Any sexually active person can, therefore, be infected with them. Genital herpes is mainly transmitted through sexual intercourse as well as oral or anal sex. Contagion is also possible via sex toys.

For genital herpes is mainly the type 2 virus responsible, while cold sores typically caused by herpes simplex type 1. The type 1 virus can also cause genital herpes. Therefore, a cold sore, for example, by oral sex, are also transmitted to the genitalia and there lead to genital herpes.

Outside the skin, the virus does not survive long. Therefore, it is implausible to get infected in the bathroom or over other surfaces and objects.

How long does it take from infection to illness?

After infection, the infection can lead to genital herpes after just a few days. The virus can also cause symptoms only after weeks, months or years. Most people who catch the virus, however, get no or just inconspicuous signs.

How long does an outbreak last?

Those who have genital herpes for the first time often have stronger symptoms and have to expect that the healing process takes about 20 days. However, this is different from person to person. In a further outbreak, the complaints are usually less severe and often disappear after about ten days.

Am I contagious if I have no symptoms?

Even in symptom-free phases, herpes viruses can be located on the mucous membranes. Therefore, you can be contagious even at this time. The risk is much lower than during an outbreak. Nevertheless, it makes sense to use condoms even during the symptom-free time during sex. You can significantly reduce the risk of transmission and also protect against other STDs.

What is the risk of getting infected during sex?

In studies with couples in whom one of them had genital herpes, 5 to 10% of the partners were infected with the virus within one year. However, couples rarely used condoms in these studies – and often only during an outbreak. In one of these studies, it has been estimated that one out of every 1000 lovemaking records is believed to be contagious. The risk, for example, depends on how often you have sex, how to use condoms and how long the infection already exists. Anyone who carries the virus in the body for a longer time is less contagious than someone who has just become infected. Women are also more likely to get involved than men.

I have genital herpes: how can I protect others from getting infected?

There is no one hundred percent protection against genital herpes. However, the risk of infection can be significantly reduced. So it is important to abstain from sex as soon as a genital herpes outbreak suggests. The risk of infecting someone is most significant during an explosion.

In the symptom-free period, condoms can significantly reduce the risk of infection. Because even without symptoms, you can be contagious – but much less than during an outbreak.

If you have genital herpes, it makes sense to talk about it with the partner and to make a blood test for herpes antibodies. This makes it possible to assess who carries which virus types in the body – and whether there is a risk of infection. Anyone who has genital herpes and takes anti-virus medication is also less infectious.

How often does genital herpes cause discomfort?

Anyone who had genital herpes must expect the virus to break out again and again. How often depends on which virus is responsible for genital herpes. If herpes simplex type 1 (HSV-1) is the trigger, further outbreaks are to be expected in 20 to 50% of those affected in the year following the first illness.


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