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What is genital herpes?

Genital herpes is a common sexually transmitted disease (STD). A person can contract herpes and not know it. They can never show signs or symptoms but despite this they are still able to spread the disease to others.

When a person has a disease but does not show signs or symptoms they are called asymptomatic. Because this disease has so many asymptomatic carriers this particular STD is of particular concern regarding public health.

Herpes comes from the Greek word meaning to creep.

Genital herpes is caused by a virus called the herpes simplex virus. There are two types: herpes simplex virus 1 (HSV-1) and herpes simplex virus 2 (HSV-2).

Although either type can cause both genital herpes and oral herpes it is the most common that HSV-1 causes oral herpes (e.g. cold sores/fever blisters) and HSV-2 causes genital herpes.

It is interesting to note that humans are the only known reservoir of the herpes virus. It does not infect or transmit from pets or other animals.

How is herpes diagnosed?

The less strict characteristics used to diagnose herpes are:

  • Presence of dark-field-negative, vesicular (blisters) or ulcerative (sores) genital lesions
  • Past history of these lesions
  • Sexual contact with someone with similar lesions

Although signs and symptoms can lead one to believe they have herpes, this can not be definitively concluded without proper lab testing.

Proper diagnosis includes various laboratory methods that either culture (grow the virus in a test tube or petri dish) or isolate the virus from your blood or tissue samples.

The following are common lab tests the confirm a diagnosis of herpes

How do you get herpes?

You can receive the herpes virus from:

  • Direct contact Close contact with an infected area of a persons skin :: Sex does not have to occur. You could simply be spooning naked with an infected individual and still contract the herpes virus.
  • Sexual intercourse Having sex with an infected person puts your skin in contact with the virus and makes it very likely for it to be transmitted. The more physical the act of sex the more likely transmission can occur. To be more direct, repeated Bumping and grinding causes the breaking of blisters and/or the skin to become red and irritated (this makes it more susceptible to infection).  This causes more virus to be shed from the infected person. These factors make the uninfected person more susceptible to contraction. However, do not be fooled, any contact whatsoever can easily transmit the virus.
  • Oral sex an infected person with a cold sore or fever blister that performs oral sex can transmit the virus to their partners genitals.

Highest risk When someone has an outbreak or visible herpes blisters present on their mouth or genitalia region, this is when the most virus is shed and therefore substantially increase the risk of transmission.

Remember, someone does NOT have to have visible herpes blisters/lesions/sores to transmit the herpes virus to others.

HSV (which causes gential herpes) is transmitted when the virus comes into contact with mucosal tissue (lining of vagina, lining of male urethra, eyes, mouth) or the broken skin of a susceptible host.

Any break in the skin no matter how large or small puts you at a much higher risk of contracting HSV and subsequently herpes. People who have a compromised or weakened immune system (especially HIV/AIDS patients) are at higher risk to contract HSV if they are exposed.

Typically the virus is transmitted by direct contact. This is because the virus dies once it leaves the environment of its host. The virus is highly unlikely to survive in a dry environment at room temperature.

However, there have been documented cases of the herpes virus being passed through contaminated surfaces and even underwear (especially if moist/damp).

It goes without saying but just as a point of reiteration, it is never a good idea to share someones unwashed underwear.

An increasing amount of genital infections are being caused by HSV-1 (recall that HSV-1 typically causes oral herpes). This is due to the rising popularity of oral sex.

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