It's Your Health
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Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) that can cause painful sores on and around the genital area. There is no cure for the condition, but medication can help ease symptoms.
Herpes simplex virus, the virus that causes genital herpes, belongs to the same family of viruses that cause cold sores, chickenpox, shingles and other diseases. Genital herpes can be transmitted during vaginal, anal or oral sex even if the infected person has no open sores or any other symptoms of infection. Although it is rare, pregnant women can pass the infection onto their babies during or after birth.
Practising safer sex can help reduce the risk of getting or transmitting the infection.
Many people who have genital herpes are unaware that they have the virus because they have no symptoms, mild symptoms, or mistake the symptoms for other conditions such as jock itch, yeast infections, razor burn or allergic reactions to detergents. The only way to be sure whether or not you have genital herpes is to be tested.
Those with symptoms may experience a tingling sensation or itching in the genital area within two to twenty days of having sex with an infected person. A cluster of blisters may appear, which can burst, leaving painful sores often lasting two to three weeks. A fever, headache and muscular pain may occur during the first attack.
After the sores from the first attack heal, the virus goes into a dormant stage but recurrent outbreaks can occur. Some people have only one or two recurrences in a lifetime, while others have them frequently. Recurrences are typically shorter in duration and less severe than the first episode. It is believed that stress can play a role in the frequency and severity of outbreaks. Herpes can continue to be transmitted to others, even between recurrences when the infected person has no symptoms.
Women's symptoms can include:
Men's symptoms can include:
For both men and women, the sores will usually occur at or near the site where the virus was transmitted.
Pain and discomfort are the main health effects of genital herpes, but the virus can also cause emotional and social problems for those infected. There are now several anti-viral drugs available to help prevent outbreaks and minimize the severity.
Transmission of the herpes simplex virus from an infected mother to her child during pregnancy or birth is rare. In some cases, herpes infection can be life-threatening to the child; in other cases it may result in brain damage or skin lesions.
Following these suggestions can help protect you from contracting genital herpes.
If you think you may have genital herpes:
Health Canada's Sexual Health and Sexually Transmitted Infections Section provides national leadership and coordination through programs that develop and support surveillance and targeted research studies. Working with the provincial and territorial governments, non-governmental organizations and health care providers, the Section develops evidence-based national standards and policies, promotes the exchange of information and engages in prevention and promotion activities.
For more information on genital herpes, talk to your doctor or visit your local public health clinic. You can also find helpful information on genital herpes, other STIs, and sexual health at the following websites:
For tips on safer sex practices go to Health Canada's Condoms, Sexually transmitted infections, Safer Sex and You Web site.
For information on STIs directed at youth go to the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada's sexuality and you Teen Web site.
For more information on common STIs and tips on prevention go to the
College of Family Physicians of Canada's Web site.
For additional articles on Health and Safety issues go to the It's Your Health Web site. You can also call (613) 957-2991.
ę Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada,
represented by the Minister of Health, 2004
Original: August 2004