Genital herpes has become an epidemic of the sexually transmissible disease in the US, as it has in many other countries. It is a distressing and painful condition for which there is no present cure.
It is caused by a virus similar to that which causes cold sores on the face, and in fact, either virus may be cultured from facial or genital infections; oral cold sores can transmit the virus through oral contact with the genitals, causing genital infection.
Some people have attacks of genital herpes without visible sores, but most have a severe initial attack followed by recurrences, often for many years. Initially there is a tingling or burning sensation, followed by a cluster of blistery sores which then form small ulcers; these will usually be on or near the genital organs.
The sores are painful, particularly for females when urinating, (and in males also if they get them in the urethra). In addition, fever, feelings of misery and headache, and painful, swollen glands in the groin may be present during the primary attack, though these are less likely in subsequent occurrences.
The sores are infectious, presenting a very high risk to sexual partners (including homosexuals), who are likely to develop the disease several days after exposure (or up to several weeks in some cases.) Healing occurs in about three weeks, and infection can spread until healing is complete.
After the initial sores heal the virus remains permanently in the body; it causes recurrent attacks of sores, usually triggered by rises in body temperature, exposure to sunlight, stress, fatigue, or changes in the female hormone cycle.
There is no curative treatment as yet, but some people find that Stoxil ointment, used from the very first discomfort, can modify attacks; Zinvit C 250, a combined zinc and vitamin C tablet taken regularly, also seems to reduce frequency and severity of attacks for some people.
Anesthetic creams such as Paxyl give some relief from pain. Ice cubes applied to the affected area for up to two hours help some people. Antibiotics do not help, except for reducing bacterial secondary infection of the sores, and steroid creams such as hydrocortisone can suppress natural responses to infection and thus help to spread the virus. Hypnosis, acupuncture, and biofeedback methods of temperature control have helped some herpes suffers.
Intensive research into herpes infections is in progress and one product, Acyclovir, appears to hold promise. It is currently used as an ointment, which appears to speed healing and reduce contagiousness, by stopping the production of herpes virus in infected skin cells; it does not reach the virus latent in the spinal nerves, and so it is not a cure.
Other antiviral agents are also being tested, and a vaccine is being developed in Britain which appears to protect sexual partners of people with herpes and to reduce the frequency and severity of attacks in the latter group.
Herpes infection has particular implications for women. The virus is one of the many agents implicated in the development of cancer of the cervix (wart virus is another) so that regular cervical smears must be done if you have herpes. During pregnancy, herpes poses a risk to the fetus, and to the newborn during delivery.