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People often think that genital herpes means nothing more than an annoying itch. However, this misunderstood, often silent condition, can cause symptoms that strike at the very heart of the female condition, and could even cause stillbirth.

Genital herpes is the silent villain of sexually transmitted infections. Often lying dormant for months or even years, many people don't know they have it until long after they've been infected. Genital herpes, however, isn't as simple as its quiet nature would suggest. It can cause serious symptoms and side effects, including birth defects in an unborn child.

Genital herpes? What's that, then?

Genital herpes is an incredibly common STI, thought to affect up to one-sixth of the population aged 14 to 49. It is caused by the Herpes Simplex Virus. During sexual contact with an affected partner, the Herpes Simplex Virus enters the body through microscopic lesions in the skin and in the mucous membrane of the genitals

There are two types of Herpes Simplex Virus. Type 1 is associated with cold sores, while Type 2 is passed on through genital contact. But don't assume you can't get Type 2 HSV if you only have oral sex; despite it's name, it can develop on the mouth, as well as the genitals.[1]

(Note: It's also possible to pass-on the Type 1 Herpes Simplex Virus through sexual contact, so don't go giving or receiving oral sex if you or your partner has a cold sore)

So what? If I get it, my doctor will treat it. It's really not that big a deal. Is it?

Actually, once you've had one outbreak of genital herpes, the Type 2 Herpes Simplex Virus settles in the nerves and lies dormant. That means that reactivations, or reoccurences, of genital herpes may happen throughout your lifetime.

But isn't genital herpes just a few spots and an itch?

When you think about genital herpes, you probably think about the small, blister-like spots, you imagine there'll be some itching, and you probably think that's all there is to this complex and recurrent sexually transmitted infection. That is not the case. Symptoms of genital herpes vary from person to person, and while many cases of genital herpes do cause mild to moderate symptoms, some women experience symptoms that are far more severe, even painful.

Symptoms usually vary from the first outbreak to all subsequent outbreaks, and are usually especially severe if the first outbreak occurs within two weeks of contracting the infection from your partner.

What if I'm pregnant?

Be aware of genital herpes if you a pregnant or planning to become pregnant in the near future. Genital herpes can be passed on from the mother to the fetus, and can cause serious side-effects. A baby who has contracted Herpes from their mother may be born prematurely, be born with brain damage or with damage to the skin or eyes, or may even be stillborn.

If you have genital herpes or think you may have contracted them during your pregnancy, please tell your doctor or midwife. Your doctor will be able to prescribe appropriate medication to help you manage your Herpes: your doctor will probably subscribe acyclovir, Valacyclovir, or famciclovir approximately three weeks before your due date to prevent a potential outbreak during your delivery. Population-based studies prove acyclovir to be safe during pregnancy. [2]

Be aware, also, that if your herpes is active at the time you're due to deliver your baby, your doctor will most likely suggest that you give birth by cesarean section. if you don't have an active outbreak during your delivery, you can give birth vaginally.   

Symptoms Of Genital Herpes You Should Know About

Symptoms During The First Outbreak of Herpes

The first thing you may notice is cracked, raw skin around your rectum and genitals. This may occur with or without an itching or tingling sensation. This frequently occurs with flu-like symptoms, including a fever, swollen glands, general aches and pains, and a headache.[1,2]

Then you may notice the formation of small, white blisters around your vagina, labia and anus. Less commonly, you may notice blisters on your thighs and buttocks, and your doctor may find blisters on your cervix during an examination. However, it is possible to have Genital herpes without these telltale blisters, so don't assume you're unaffected if you don't have the blisters.

If you do develop blisters on your vagina, labia and anus, you may notice a burning sensation when you urinate.

Sometimes the infection spreads to the cervix, causing inflammation of the cervix (cervicitis). If you develop cervicitis, you may notice the following symptoms: a greyish or yellow discharge from your vagina, abnormal vaginal bleeding (for example, after sex or between menstrual periods), painful sex, a change in urination (especially if it becomes painful, difficult or more frequent), pelvic or low abdominal pain, and a low fever. This cervicitis may be the only symptom of genital herpes that you have.

Sometimes, the infection spreads to the urethra (the thin tube that carries the urine from the bladder to the vulva), and causes inflammation (urethritis). Urethritis can cause a frequent and urgent need to urinate, difficulty starting urination, and pain during urination. Confusingly, it can also cause symptoms that could be confused with cervicitis, including pain during sexual intercourse and a discharge from the vagina.

Herpes Reactivations

After the initial outbreak has been treated, you may experience further periods of reactivation. These reoccurences are usually milder than the initial outbreak, and often last for a shorter length of time. However, if you have a weakened immune system, reoccurences of genital herpes can be both very severe and long-lasting.

Many things can trigger reactivations, including:

  • Menstruation
  • Fatigue
  • Extreme sunlight
  • Physical illness
  • Stress
  • Surgery
  • Trauma

Psychological Symptoms Of Genital Herpes

The diagnosis (or the suspicion) of genital herpes can be very distressing. It's not uncommon to feel ashamed or anxious about the diagnosis. You may feel embarrassed, and find your self-esteem lowered. You also may find it difficult to feel close to your partner.

Remember that there's nothing to feel ashamed of. Your doctor will have seen genital herpes many times before, and it's better to get this condition treated than to suffer silently.

What should I do now? 

If you've noticed any symptoms, have had sexual contact with an affected partner, or have had unprotected sexual contact with a new partner (even if you haven't noticed any symptoms yourself), contact your health care provider. They will take a swab of your vagina and send it away for analysis. If you are diagnosed as having genital herpes, they will also be able to treat you with antiviral drugs, which treat the active infection and prevent you passing it on to someone else.

Don't let embarrassment and anxiety risk your health or that of your loved ones.

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