Herpes simplex virus (HSV), better known as genital herpes, is a contagious viral infection estimated to infect 45 million Americans, with as many as 500,000 new cases occurring each year. Infections frequently go unrecognized by patients and/or clinicians. Two types of virus, HSV1 and HSV2, cause genital herpes. Both types produce sores in and around the vagina, penis, anal opening, and on the buttocks or thighs. Sores may also appear on other areas whenever broken skin comes into contact with HSV.
The virus invades nerves cells and can reside there for life, causing periodic symptoms. Genital herpes infection is acquired by sexual contact with a partner having an outbreak of herpes sores in the genital area. Oral herpes can be transmitted to the genital area of a partner during oral sex. Some herpes infections may make people more likely to get an HIV infection if exposed to the virus. Reliable tests for HSV antibodies are now readily available. In addition, PCR tests can be used to detect herpes infection.
Genital herpes is not readily spread by contact with a toilet seat or in a hot tub.
There is no cure for herpes. However, there are a number of drugs that are effective in treating the herpes virus. Acyclovir, an antiviral drug, is the “gold standard” of therapy. These drugs reduce symptoms and help to speed healing. They also lessen the chances of outbreaks. There is no vaccine for genital herpes, although recent trials of vaccines reduced the risk of infection by 75 percent. The vaccine was not effective in men, however, making it the first time a vaccine worked in one sex and not in the other. Unfortunately, herpes can be spread even if the infection is inactive.