Genital Herpes Prevention and Treatment Information

The best way for you to prevent genital herpes is to abstain from vaginal, oral and anal sex, or to be in a long-term, monogamous relationship with a partner who has been tested and is known to be uninfected.

If you choose to be sexually active, using a condom during vaginal, oral or anal sex can help prevent the spread of the virus. For vaginal sex, you and your partner should use a latex male condom or a polyurethane female condom. For anal sex, a latex male condom should be used. For oral sex, use a condom or a dental dam, which is a rubbery material that can be placed over the anus or the vagina before sexual contact.

Although sex with a condom is often referred to as safe sex, it is actually less-risky sex. Condoms can reduce your risk of contracting genital herpes, but they are not 100 percent effective in preventing the spread of the disease, because sores can occur outside the area protected by the condom.

If your partner has genital herpes, your risk of getting the disease is greatest when he is experiencing an outbreak. However, you can also contract the disease when your partner is not exhibiting any symptoms. It is best to avoid sexual contact when symptoms are present and to use condoms between outbreaks. Because herpes can be passed to the genitals from oral contact, it is best to abstain from oral sex if you or your partner has a cold sore.

If you have herpes and are pregnant, there are steps you can take to prevent transmitting the disease to your baby. If you have active sores at the time of your delivery, a cesarean delivery (C-section) may be recommended. A C-section is a procedure in which a baby is delivered through an incision made in the mother's abdomen and into the uterus instead of through the vagina.

There are certain factors that make you more likely to contract genital herpes. Risk factors include:

  • Having multiple sex partners. Having sex with more than one person increases your risk of getting genital herpes.
  • Having high-risk partners. Sex with a person who has multiple sexual partners or one who is infected with the HSV-2 virus raises your odds of getting genital herpes.
  • Having unprotected sex. Engaging in sex without using a condom also increases the risk of getting genital herpes. (Condoms reduce, but don't completely remove, the risk of spreading the HSV-2 virus.)
  • Gender. Women are more likely to contract genital herpes. This discrepancy is probably due to the fact that the disease is more apt to be transmitted from a man to a woman than from a woman to a man. Women also tend to have more severe and longer-lasting symptoms.
  • Having an impaired immune system. If you have a disease that affects the immune system, such as human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), you are more prone to genital herpes. This is due to a decreased ability to fight infection.

Genital Herpes: Treatment Options

There is no cure for genital herpes. Once the virus has infected your body, it will always remain there. However, your physician can prescribe antiviral drugs that can reduce the severity of your symptoms and the number of outbreaks you experience. One antiviral drug was recently approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to prevent transmission of genital herpes.

Drugs commonly used to treat genital herpes include acyclovir, famciclovir, and valacyclovir. These drugs are taken orally in the form of a pill. Topical creams are not used, because they have been proven to be ineffective. Intravenous treatment may be used to treat people with suppressed immune systems, such as those who have human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

There are several types of treatment methods, including:

  • Episodic therapy. This method involves taking medication when symptoms appear. It requires you to take a daily dose of a medication, usually for a week, until your symptoms subside. The medications, which are safe and have few side effects, shorten the length of first episodes and reduce the severity of recurring outbreaks, especially if taken within 24 hours of the onset of symptoms.
  • Suppressive therapy. Your doctor may recommend this method if you experience frequent recurrences. It involves taking daily medication even when you don't have any symptoms. It reduces the number of outbreaks you experience and lowers the risk of transmitting the virus to your sexual partner.
  • Episodic suppressive therapy. This method allows you to prevent outbreaks during a short but important time period, such as while on vacation.

When you have an outbreak, there are a number of steps you can take to speed healing and prevent spread of the infection to other parts of the body and other people. They include:

  • Keeping the infected area clean and dry
  • Trying not to touch the sores
  • Washing your hands after touching the sores
  • Avoiding sexual contact from the time symptoms are noticed until they have healed

In addition, there are several self-care measures you can take to ease the symptoms associated with a herpes outbreak. Applying cool cloths to the affected area may provide relief. You should also avoid wearing tight or irritating underwear or clothing. Over-the-counter pain medication, such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen, can also be taken to help alleviate the pain of genital sores.

If you are pregnant and the virus is active late in your pregnancy, your doctor might put you on suppressive therapy to help prevent transmission of the virus to your baby. If sores are detected in or near your vagina at the time of labor, you may be given a cesarean section (the surgical delivery of a baby through the mother's abdomen).

If your newborn is infected, treatment with antiviral medications can greatly improve your baby's health, particularly if treatment starts immediately. With early detection and treatment, most of the serious complications of neonatal herpes can be lessened. It is not known if there are any long-term effects on a baby exposed to antiviral medication during pregnancy.

Last updated 24 March 2012

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