What is herpes?
Herpes is caused by a virus called Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV). There are two types of herpes virus, which tend to affect different areas of the body:
causes cold sores around the mouth. It is very common, and most people catch it when they are children, often through kissing. It is also an increasing cause of genital herpes.
causes genital herpes but can very rarely cause oral cold sores.
Herpes in the body
Once the herpes virus gets into your body, as well as causing an initial reaction, it remains in your body permanently but not causing any harm. It may lie dormant like this for the rest of your life. Sometimes, however, it travels back to the surface of your skin and causes another bout of symptoms.
What are the symptoms?
The first time someone is infected with the herpes virus produces the most severe reaction. After an incubation time of up to 10 days, symptoms may begin with a tingling feeling or an itching in the genital area. This may turn to several blisters and then to quite painful sores or ulcers. Passing urine might also be very uncomfortable. These ulcers may scab over and then heal after a week or two. Also, some people have swollen lymph glands and flu-like symptoms. But many people with herpes have no symptoms and don’t know they are infected.
How can you test for herpes?
You can only be tested for the herpes virus when there is a visible “sore” present as a special swab needs to be taken at that time.
How is herpes treated?
Bathe the affected area in salty water or a solution of bicarbonate of soda (also lying in such a bath can ease discomfort), then keep dry afterwards. Resting (e.g. in bed) will help flu-like symptoms and will also help avoid friction on the ulcers. Mild painkillers may also help. If passing urine is particularly painful, you could try pouring warm water over the affected area, or passing urine in the bath. Avoid any risk of spreading the infection to other parts of your body. Wash your hands thoroughly after touching the affected area.
Will it come back?
As herpes is permanently present in the body, it is possible that recurrent attacks may occur. These are usually much less severe than the first attack, and ulcers will heal themselves within a few days. Most of the time there is no specific cause of a recurrence of herpes, but there are a number of things that may contribute to another attack. Friction during sex (using a lubricating gel can help this), direct sunlight or sunlamp rays on genital area, tight clothing or nylon underwear, and often just being generally run down or stressed. Sometimes people need tablets to prevent them getting frequent attacks but this is something which should be discussed with the doctor at the sexual health clinic.
How is herpes passed on?
The herpes virus can be passed on by contact with the affected area. This can happen during sex or oral sex. Many cases of genital herpes are also caused by the oral herpes virus ( type 1), maybe as a result of oral sex. It is not advisable to have oral sex with someone who has cold sores. There is more chance of acquiring the herpes infection when someone has a sore or has recently had a sore. However, people can also “shed” the virus from the skin at other times when they have no symptoms.
NHS Health Scotland have produced an information leaflet on Genital Herpes which can be accessed from : http://www.healthscotland.com/documents/3421.aspx