Caused by either of the two types of herpes simplex virus, including one that's responsible for cold sores, genital herpes is a sexually transmitted disease (STD) that's highly contagious. Symptoms can range from mild soreness to noticeable pain and discomfort in the genital area. Knowing what to look for increases your odds of seeking successful treatment sooner rather than later and reduces the risk of passing it to others.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), genital herpes tends to affect people between the ages of 14 and 49. However, anyone who is sexually active may get it. The herpes virus is especially worrisome if you are pregnant. It may be passed along to your baby in the form of a potentially serious variation of the condition called neonatal herpes. Treatment with medication before delivery often reduces this risk.
In many cases, a person has genital herpes and doesn't even know it, especially if symptoms are very mild or vague enough to be ignored. Even if you don't have noticeable symptoms, the virus can still be passed along to partners. Since the virus can become solidly ingrained within nerves, it may remain inactive (dormant) for years. When symptoms are detectable, they tend to appear soon after infection. Sores on the genitals or on the buttocks, rectal area, or thighs are the most common sign of genital herpes.
While you should see your doctor for an initial diagnosis, there are steps you can take to treat mild outbreaks at home. Over-the-counter pain medications like acetaminophen (Tylenol) and aspirin may ease discomfort. Relaxing in warm salt water bath may also provide relief. You may also benefit from getting plenty of sleep to allow for natural healing, applying ice packs to the affected area, washing your hands frequently after contact with the affected area, or by wearing loose-fitting clothing to allow air to circulate and prevent irritation from rubbing.
Genital herpes can often be prevented by using protection while having sex and knowing a partner's history and whether or not they've tested negative for STDs. It can also help to be in a monogamous relationship where both you and your partner have recently tested negative for genital herpes or any other STDs.
It's not uncommon for someone who has been treated for genital herpes to have repeated outbreaks after initial treatment. Subsequent outbreaks tend to be milder and decrease in frequency over time, usually going away completely within a year, although some people experience occasional outbreaks over a longer period of time. On average, about 4-5 outbreaks a year are experienced with people who have herpes. If you suspect you may have genital herpes or another STD, see your doctor. Be honest about your symptoms. A sample from one of the sores may be taken to confirm that it's herpes and rule out other possible STDs.