The herpes simplex virus (HSV) is a common sexually transmitted infection (STI) affecting more than 400 million people worldwide. The virus is of two types, HSV-1 and HSV-2. HSV-2 is considered genital herpes.
Females have a higher rate of contracting genital herpes compared to males for a few reasons. First, it’s more easily transmitted from males to females during penetrative sex. Around 8% of men aged 14 to 49 years have HSV-2 infection, while—about 16%—test positive.
Symptoms of Genital Herpes in Women
Genital herpes in women can range from asymptomatic to severe. It’s important to report any unusual skin changes or symptoms to your doctor. Once an individual has become infected with HSV, it lives in the nerve cells for life irrespective of the presence of symptoms.
The most common symptom of genital herpes in women is a change in the genital or rectal skin, usually showing up two to 12 days after sexual intercourse with someone who has herpes. Outbreaks can show up in areas including labia (folds of skin around the vagina), oral cavity, inside the vagina, urinary tract, cervix (lower part of the uterus), buttocks and thighs and can last for two to four weeks.
Some frequently observed skin changes include small red blisters, tiny white bumps, fluid-filled blisters, ulcers or lesions. The lesions usually begin as fluid-filled blisters that break and turn into painful ulcers, which may take two to four weeks to heal after the initial infection.
If you have symptoms, you must consult your doctor can diagnose a herpes infection. The two main types of tests include virologic tests used mainly for outbreaks, in which the doctor can swab the infd area and have the fluid tested by nucleic acid amplification tests (NAAT) and blood (serological) tests including blood tests for antibodies used to fight HSV. However, HSV-1 blood testing cannot distinguish between oral and genital infections.
Female Genital Herpes Treatment
HSV lives in the body forever and there is no cure for genital herpes; however, there are management strategies for supportive and symptomatic therapy.
Daily suppression therapy through antiviral medications approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) can help prevent recurring outbreaks or make them shorter and less severe. Antiviral drugs for genital herpes include Zovirax (acyclovir) and Valtrex (valacyclovir). While the medications may help reduce outbreaks and transmission to sexual partners, they do not completely prevent the virus from spreading, so other precautions can be used to reduce the risk of transmitting it to your partner.
Home remedies don’t alter the course of an outbreak, but they can make you more comfortable and prevent infection of open sores. These include:
- Increase comfort during urination: Women with painful sores on and around the labia can urinate in a tub of water or low sitz bath (shallow pan of warm water) to avoid burning pain.
- Immune boost with minerals and vitamins such as zinc, and vitamin C, which have been shown to decrease herpes outbreaks, decrease inflammation, and accelerate healing.
- L-lysine: L-lysine is an amino acid found to shorten the length of outbreaks.
- Wash hands: To avoid infecting open sores, wash your hands with soap and water after going to the bathroom regularly or before applying medications.
- Decrease stress levels: Stress can increase your sensitivity to pain during a herpes outbreak so consider gentle mind-body therapies like yoga, meditation and guided imagery.
Over-the-counter (OTC) therapies include lidocaine or benzocaine, as they have a numbing/ anesthetic effect and can help reduce the sensation of pain and itching. In addition, oral pain relievers like Tylenol (acetaminophen) or Advil (ibuprofen) can be considered which can help ease the pain and reduce swelling.
Prevention measures include:
- Condoms: Wearing condoms consistently has decreased the risk of herpes transmission from men to women by 96% and from women to men by 65%. Since herpes is spread through skin-to-skin contact, the barrier method does not cover all infected skin.
- Abstinence during outbreaks: If you or your partner are having an outbreak, avoiding sex is one of the most important ways to reduce the risk of herpes transmission.
- Regular STI testing: Self-monitoring your body for unusual activity and getting tested regularly is key to preventing infection or successfully treating a new herpes outbreak.
- Open communication: Ask when the last time a new sexual partner was tested, suggest getting new tests together, or find other ways to explore intimacy.
- Monogamy: Long-term relationships with one sexual partner can lower your risk of contracting genital herpes (or any STIs) after both partners have been tested.