Medically reviewed by Leah Millheiser, MD
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 6/19/2020
Herpes is a serious problem for women all over the world. But this incurable disease is treatable, and millions of women with herpes live normal lives.
If you’re scouring the web in search of herpes symptoms in women, there’s a chance you think you might be infected. Knowing whether or not you carry the herpes virus is crucial to your physical and mental health, and the physical health of your partner(s).
Though herpes is not deadly, it may potentially cause complications if you’re pregnant now or one day become pregnant. Additionally, herpes is a life-long virus that can be spread through sexual and non-sexual contact, which can be frustrating and problematic if not handled responsibly. So, knowing your status and what can be done to treat the virus if you are infected can lessen the risk of these and other complications.
If you think you might have genital herpes, read on to understand more about this very common virus, including the symptoms you may be experiencing.
There are several strains of the herpes virus, but the two most common are Herpes Simplex Virus Type 1 (HSV-1, the most common cause of oral herpes), and Herpes Simplex Virus Type 2 (HSV-2, the most common cause of genital herpes). However, It is important to understand that oral herpes can be transmitted to the genitals during oral sex.
Both types of herpes are quite common. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as many as 12.1 percent of people in the U.S. between the ages of 14 and 49 had genital herpes and 48.1 percent of people had oral herpes in their 2015-2016 health survey.
Most often, oral herpes is spread through close contact with someone who is already infected — generally by kissing or even sharing straws and eating/drinking utensils, but also possibly through oral sex (if the sexual partner has genital herpes). The World Health Organization says that about two-thirds of the global population has oral herpes, and most people are infected during childhood.
Genital herpes, on the other hand, is most often spread through sexual contact with an infected person. Vaginal, oral and anal sex can all spread the virus. In some cases, HSV-1 can be transmitted to the genital region as well.
There is no cure for either HSV-1 or HSV-2.
Most often, the symptoms you experience with a herpes infection depend on the type of herpes you have.
In oral herpes infections, the most common symptom is cold sores in, on or around the mouth. With genital herpes, however, the symptoms are typically in the genital region. Symptoms of HSV-2 in women include:
Small white blisters or red bumps
Ulcers when these blisters rupture
Scabs when the ulcers crust over and heal
Pain, tingling or itching at the site of infection
These symptoms can occur in numerous places, including: on the vulva and in the vagina, on the buttocks and thighs, the anus, on or in the urethra and on the cervix.
During your first outbreak of genital herpes, the symptoms may be more severe and include:
Pain in the legs and anogenital regions
Swollen glands or lymph nodes
Pressure in the abdomen
That said, symptoms may not always be apparent. The symptoms of genital herpes can be so mild they go undetected, or worse, are completely asymptomatic, according to the World Health Organization. The organization says, “most infected people are unaware that they have the infection.”
Some women may only have one or two herpes outbreaks in their lives, while others may have several a year. For most people, the severity of symptoms lessens with each outbreak, and outbreaks become less common as time goes on. Genital herpes caused by HSV-1 generally leads to less frequent and severe recurrences than genital herpes caused by HSV-2.
Herpes is incurable, which means that even though outbreaks may slow over time, the virus will stay with you forever. However, herpes symptoms are treatable. Your doctor can diagnose your HSV-1 and HSV-2 with a blood test or other lab tests, and prescribe medications to help lessen the severity of your symptoms.
Antiviral medications like acyclovir (Zovirax®) and valacyclovir (Valtrex®) can help speed recovery from outbreaks, lessen the severity of outbreaks, reduce how often you experience outbreaks and even minimize the risk that you’ll pass HSV-1 or HSV-2 onto your partner.
It’s believed outbreaks can be triggered by certain factors, and learning to manage these triggers can also lessen the risk of outbreaks. Stress, illness or a compromised immune system, poor diet, some medications, traumas and even things as seemingly benign as overexposure to sunlight may reactivate the herpes virus in your body.
As with many sexually transmitted infections, a diagnosis of genital herpes can cause emotional distress, and failing to recognize the mental symptoms of herpes does a disservice to women who may struggle with the emotions connected to the condition. Embarrassment, shame, fear that you’ll pass the infection along and worrying about an outbreak are all normal reactions to genital herpes.
The virus can impact your quality of life and potentially contribute to anxiety and depression. If you’re having problems managing the emotional results of herpes, talk with your doctor or a mental health therapist about your struggles.
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