Suspect that you may have genital herpes? Know that you have it but want more information?Read on.
Genital herpes is a viral infection marked by sores that look like fever blisters on the genital area. There’s a reason they resemble fever blisters, too. Both genital herpes and fever blisters are caused by the herpes simplex virus. There are two strains of herpes simplex virus-Type I and Type II. The Type I virus usually causes fever blisters, also called cold sores, on the mouth, face, and lips, although it can also cause sores in the genital area. The Type II virus, on the other hand, most often causes sores in and around the genital area.
Herpes is a “contact virus.” In other words, you can only get it from skin-to-skin contact with someone who is infected. Herpes is passed from partner to partner through oral or genital sex. Infected persons can pass the virus on to a partner when the virus is in an active state (when sores are apparent) or a pre-active state (marked by itching or tingling in the area where sores generally appear). However, in some cases, the virus can be passed before the infected person knows he or she is shedding the virus.
The bad news is that once you contract herpes, it cannot be eradicated. “Once the herpes virus enters the body through mucous membranes in the genital area or mouth, these tiny organisms travel up the nerve endings to the base of the spine,” says Sadja Greenwood, M.D., assistant clinical professor in the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Reproductive Sciences at the University of California at San Francisco. Once established, the virus stays in the body permanently, feeding on cell nutrients. It may remain dormant, causing no symptoms, or it may recur at any time.
The first episode of herpes, before the body has built up defenses, is usually most intense and occurs a couple of days to two weeks after exposure to an infected partner. The first signs are itching, tingling, and a burning sensation or minor rash. Then, small, red sores develop. In women, the sores can occur in and around the genital area and, in some cases, on the buttocks, anus, navel, and thighs. In men, the sores usually appear on the shaft and head of the penis, although they can also develop on the testicles, in the area around the penis, and on the buttocks, anus, and thighs.
If you develop a sore or rash in the genital area, you need to see a doctor fof” correct diagnosis and treatment. Doctors don’t have a cure for herpes, but prescription medications can help relieve the symptoms and, in some cases, shorten the duration of an outbreak. You can, however, take steps at home to ease your herpes symptoms, lessen the number of recurrences, and prevent the virus from spreading.
Keep a herpes diary. Such a log can help you identify the things that trigger your herpes recurrences, such as certain foods, stress, drugs, trauma, and menstruation, says Anne Simons, M.D., a family practitioner in the San Francisco Department of Public Health. “Ask yourself: ‘What occurred just before my outbreak? Did I change my diet? Was I under any unusual stress? Did I use recreational, over-the counter, or prescription drugs?’ If you can identify and avoid your triggers, you may be able to avoid painful outbreaks,” she says.
Ice it. At the first sign of symptoms (tingling, burning, itching), apply ice to reduce pain and swelling, says Amanda Clark, M.D., assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Oregon Health Sciences University in Portland. Place crushed ice cubes in a plastic bag (a bag of frozen peas or frozen unpopped popcorn also works), and wrap it in a cloth that is the thickness of a sheet (a terry-cloth towel is too thick to transmit the cold effectively). Place it directly on the area. Keep it in place for 10 to 15 minutes at a time. Reapply several times throughout the day.
Dry it out. External drying remedies like baking soda and cornstarch may lessen the itching, says Greenwood. You can also try using a hand-held hair dryer on a cool setting to help dry out the sores.
Wear baggy pants. Tight-fitting underwear, nylons, or pants can irritate the genital area and stimulate a herpes outbreak, says Susan Woodruff, B.S.N., childbirth and parenting education coordinator at Tuality Community Hospital in Hillsboro, Oregon. They can also increase discomfort when sores are present. She advises opting for comfortable, baggy shorts and slacks.
Tea for one, please. “The tannic acid in black tea is very soothing to genital tissues,” says Clark. “Place cold, wet tea bags right on the sores.”
Cool it with Burow’s. Simons recommends applying cool compresses soaked in Burow’s solution (available without a prescription in pharmacies) to the sores four to six times a day. Follow package directions for preparing the Burow’s solution.
Take a hot bath. Sitting for five to ten minutes in a hot “sitz” bath (a bathtub filled with three to four inches of water) three or four times a day sometimes inactivates the sores and speeds healing by drying out the sores, says Woodruff “The warm water brings circulation to the area, which seems to have a positive effect,” she says.
Take a nonprescription pain reliever. Over-the-counter analgesics like acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or aspirin can reduce pain, says Greenwood. Take two tablets every four hours as needed for pain.
Wear cotton underwear. Avoid synthetic fabrics that can trap heat and moisture in the genital area. Choose cotton underwear that “breathes.”
Avoid arginine. Although the link between food and herpes remains fuzzy, some experts believe that the herpes simplex virus is stimulated by arginine, a substance found in foods like chocolate and peanuts. Experiment for yourself. If you find your herpes is affected by arginine-containing foods, avoid them, says Greenwood.
Keep dry. Keep the genital area as dry as possible. After a bath or shower, pat (don’t rub) the area dry with a soft, dry towel. Use a different towel to dry the rest of your body to avoid spreading the virus to other parts of the body, and never share your towels with others. If the area is too tender to towel dry, try using a hand-held hair dryer on the cool setting, says Simons.
Don’t use ointments. Viruses, including the herpes virus, like environments that are moist. Avoid using petrolatum or antibiotic ointments on your sores; these products may prevent drying and slow healing.
Hands off. Keep in mind that herpes is a contact virus. You get it and pass it from skin-to-skin contact. If you have herpes sores and touch them, you can spread the virus to other parts of your body, such as your eyes or mouth. Avoid directly touching any active herpes sore.
Relax. While mind-body science is still in its infancy, and researchers aren’t sure exactly why stress affects herpes, the experience of many women indicates that herpes sores tend to erupt when one feels run-down or overly stressed. Hence the association between colds and cold sores. To minimize any possible effect from stress, try to get plenty of rest and, if necessary, try some form of stress-reduction technique, such as regular aerobic exercise or progressive relaxation, says Greenwood.
Practice safe sex. If you or your partner have active sores or feel sores coming on, avoid sexual contact, advises Greenwood. (A condom may prevent herpes spread from an infected man, but protection isn’t always 100 percent. Condoms won’t halt virus transmission from an infected woman.) Talk with your sex partners honestly about your sexual histories. Use a condom with all new partners.
Maintain good general health. The body’s immune system is better able to fight off the advances of the herpes virus and other organisms if you’re in good health. Keep the machinery running at full power by eating a well-balanced, low-fat diet and exercising regularly. Avoid immune-lowering activities like cigarette smoking and using drugs and alcohol.
Get support. Stress promotes herpes and herpes tends to cause stress. It seems like a vicious cycle. How do you break it? Get support by joining a herpes support group in your area. Many people feel embarrassment, guilt, and frustration about their herpes. Talking with others who share your problem can be healing. They may not only help you overcome your negative feelings about herpes, they may offer coping tips and strategies that they’ve developed through experience-strategies that may, in turn, help you. To find a herpes support group in your area, call the American Social Health Association at 919-361-8400, or write to them at P.O. Box 13827, Triangle Park, North Carolina 27709. The American Social Health Association also publishes an excellent newsletter, The Helper, for herpes sufferers.
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