When it comes to herpes, men may feel more secure knowing that genital herpes is less common among their gender than it is in women. According to the Centers for Disease Control, genital herpes affects one out of eight men compared to one out of every four women. However, the daunting news is that if you get herpes, you may not even know it--more than 90 percent of people are not aware that they're infected with the virus that causes herpes. Signs of herpes on the penis can be quite obvious, especially during a primary outbreak, but they can also be so mild as to go undetected.
Genital Herpes: How It Affects Men
The herpes virus that affects humans is the same in men as it is in women, and is caused by either the herpes simplex viruses type 1 (HSV-1) or type 2 (HSV-2), although most cases of genital herpes are caused by the latter type. Once you are infected, the virus lodges itself in the ganglion (nerve) closest to the base of the spine, where it lies dormant until it activates. Men may notice signs of herpes on the penis, but sores can also erupt near the anus and on the scrotum, thighs and buttocks. It's entirely possible that signs of herpes on the penis will be so mild that you won't notice them--you may mistake an outbreak as an insect bite, chafing from a bike ride, or an allergic reaction to condoms or spermicide.
What Does It Look Like?
Herpes begins as painful lesions that are usually composed of tiny, watery sores bunched together in clusters. The blisters eventually rupture and form ulcers, then scab over and heal without scarring. According to Mayo Clinic experts, it's possible for men to have sores both on and inside the penis as well--this may cause an unusual discharge. The initial outbreak of herpes is usually the most severe and takes place within two weeks of being exposed to the herpes virus. Often, the first outbreak is accompanied by full-body symptoms that are flu-like in nature and may include headache, joint pain, fatigue, fever and swollen glands in the area of the groin. During the first outbreak, it's also not uncommon for a new group of blisters to erupt five to seven days after the first. According to the CDC, the first outbreak typically lasts between two and four weeks.
How Did I Get Herpes?
In 90 percent of cases, genital herpes is the result of contracting HSV-2 through direct genital-to-genital contact. However, according to the Mayo Clinic, genital herpes can also be spread through oral sex. The HSV-1 virus that causes oral herpes (also called fever blisters or cold sores) can be passed to an uninfected sexual partner, especially when oral lesions are present. Genital outbreaks caused by HSV-1 are typically milder and shorter, and result in fewer subsequent outbreaks.
Speaking of HSV-1, here's where herpes gets complicated for both genders: the HSV-1 that causes fever blisters (which are very common in the U.S. population) also causes the body to produce antibodies to fight off subsequent herpes infections. So when you're exposed to HSV-2, symptoms are so mild as to almost go undetected.
Herpes: What to Expect
After the first outbreak, you can expect to get four or five more during the nextyear--generally, they will be less severe. If you had obvious signs of herpes on the penis, it's important to see a doctor so your diagnosis can be confirmed. Blood tests can tell you if you have herpes, and if so, if it was caused by HSV-2 or HSV-1. Herpes cannot be cured, but there are oral antiviral medications that can treat symptoms. The Mayo Clinic recommends that anyone who is sexually active with uninfected sexual partners or who experiences numerous herpes outbreaks take these medications daily.
If you receive a diagnosis of herpes, it's important to protect future partners. According to the CDC, more women get genital herpes than men because male-to-female transmission of the virus is more likely. Taking antivirals can greatly reduce your chances of passing herpes to others because these curb the rate at which the virus replicates. But the herpes virus can still be shed asymptomatically through small breaks in your skin even when you don't note the presence of sores. Use condoms consistently and according to instructions, and avoid having sex with uninfected partners when you have an outbreak.
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