Can Outbreaks Recur?If you have been infected by HSV 1 and/or 2, you will probably have symptoms or outbreaks from time to time. After the virus has finished being active, it then travels to the nerves at the end of the spine where it stays for a while. Even after the lesions are gone, the virus stays inside the nerve cells in a still and hidden state, which means that it's inactive.
In most people, the virus can become active several times a year. This is called a recurrence. But scientists do not yet know why this happens. When it becomes active again, it travels along the nerves to the skin, where it makes more viruses near the site of the very first infection. That is where new sores usually will appear.
Sometimes, the virus can become active but not cause any sores that can be seen. At these times, small amounts of the virus may be shed at or near places of the first infection, in fluids from the mouth, penis, or vagina, or from barely noticeable sores. You may not notice this shedding because it often does not cause any pain or feel uncomfortable. Even though you might not be aware of the shedding, you still can infect a sex partner during this time.
After the first outbreak, any future outbreaks are usually mild and last only about a week. An infected person may know that an outbreak is about to happen by a tingling feeling or itching in the genital area, or pain in the buttocks or down the leg. For some people, these early symptoms can be the most painful and annoying part of an episode. Sometimes, only the tingling and itching are present and no visible sores develop. At other times, blisters appear that may be very small and barely noticeable, or they may break into open sores that crust over and then disappear.
The frequency and severity of recurrent episodes vary greatly. While some people have only one or two outbreaks in a lifetime, others may have several outbreaks a year. The number and pattern of repeat outbreaks often change over time for a person. Scientists do not know what causes the virus to become active again. Although some people with herpes report that their outbreaks are brought on by another illness, stress, or having a menstrual period, outbreaks often are not predictable. In some cases, outbreaks may be connected to exposure to sunlight.
How Is Genital Herpes Diagnosed?Because the genital herpes sores may not be visible to the naked eye, a doctor or other health care worker may have to do several laboratory tests to try to prove that symptoms are caused by the herpes virus. A person may still have genital herpes, however, even if the laboratory tests do not show the virus in the body.
A blood test cannot show whether a person can infect another with the herpes virus. A blood test, however, can show if a person has been infected at any time with HSV. There are also newer blood tests that can tell whether a person has been infected with HSV 1 and/or 2.
How Is Genital Herpes Treated?Although there is no cure for genital herpes, your health care worker might prescribe one of three medicines to treat it as well as to help prevent future episodes.
- Acyclovir (Zovirax)
- Famciclovir (Famvir)
- Valacyclovir (Valtrex)
During an active herpes episode, whether the first episode or a repeat one, you should follow a few simple steps to speed healing and avoid spreading the infection to other places on the body or to other people.
- Keep the infected area clean and dry to prevent other infections from developing.
- Try to avoid touching the sores.
- Wash your hands after contact with the sores.
- Avoid sexual contact from the time you first feel any symptoms until the sores are completely healed, that is, the scab has fallen off and new skin has formed where the sore was.