The herpes virus exists in some 25 different incarnations, eight of which are responsible for ailments such as shingles, the Epstein-Barr virus and even chicken pox. However, herpes simplex 1 (HSV-1) and herpes simplex 2 (HSV-2) are the two types of the virus that can be transmitted sexually from one person to another, resulting in an infection of the genital area. According to the Centers for Disease Control, one out of five people age 12 and older harbors a transmissible HSV infection.
What Causes Genital Herpes?
Genital herpes is most commonly caused by transmission of the HSV-2 virus, but not always--genital lesions can erupt when the HSV-1 virus infects the genital region, too. The live virus can be passed onto an uninfected person through the watery sores that the virus causes, either in the area of the mouth or the genital region. However, it can also be passed from one person to another by asymptomatic shedding of the virus, when no sores are visibly present. According to the Mayo Clinic, as many as 90 percent of those infected with HSV are unaware that they have it, nor do they present symptoms--as many as 80 percent of people are infected with genital herpes when their sexual partners do not have lesions present.
In the majority of cases, HSV-2 can only be passed from one person to another through sexual contact with someone with the HSV-2 virus. Use of condoms greatly reduces the likelihood of a HSV-2 infection. However, they do not protect the areas of the skin around the genitals where lesions are present. The HSV-2 virus cannot be contained by bathing or douching after sex, or by using a topical cream that purports to "kill" the HSV virus.
HSV-1 is the herpes virus that is associated with herpes of the mouth (cold sores). It is also possible to infect someone with genital herpes through oral sex when HSV-1 is present. However, an outbreak of lesions in the genital area due to HSV-1 is typically milder, and subsequent outbreaks less frequent. If HSV is transmitted orally, the person infected has HSV-1, not HSV-2.
According to the CDC and Mayo Clinic, many people who are infected with HSV-2 remain asymptomatic for numerous years or experience very mild initial outbreaks because they already have HSV-1. Once infected with HSV-1, the body creates antibodies to fight subsequent HSV infections. However, if a person is not infected with HSV, the initial outbreak will typically be very painful; they may experience full body symptoms, in addition to genital lesions. Flu-like symptoms are common, such as headache, fever, joint pain and general malaise.
There is no cure for herpes, nor are there any over-the counter remedies to effectively treat herpes symptoms. However, oral antivirals are extremely effective in hastening recovery during an initial outbreak and lessening the frequency and severity of subsequent outbreaks. These antivirals are only available through a doctor's prescription and go by the trade names of Zovirax, Famvir and Valtrex.
Currently, a vaccination for herpes is being tested, but it will not protect people who already have herpes. You can protect yourself and your sexual partners by insisting on getting screened for herpes before becoming intimately involved. If you have HSV, always inform the person you are dating so that he or she can make an educated choice. If you are infected with herpes, you can greatly reduce your chance of passing it to others by practicing safe sex (condom use) and taking antiviral medication on a daily basis.