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Genital herpes - self-care

Alternate Names

Herpes - genital -self-care; Herpes simplex - genital - self-care; Herpesvirus 2 - self-care; HSV-2 - self-care

Introduction

You are likely worried after finding out that you have genital herpes . But know that you are not alone. Millions of people carry the virus. Although there is no cure, genital herpes can be treated. Follow your health care provider’s instructions for treatment and follow-up.

Future Outbreaks

One type of herpes virus stays in the body by hiding within nerve cells. It can remain "asleep" (dormant) for a long time. The virus can "wake up" (reactivate) at any time. This can be triggered by:

  • Fatigue
  • Genital irritation
  • Menstruation
  • Physical or emotional stress
  • Injury 

A second outbreak can appear weeks or months after your first outbreak. It is usually less severe and goes away sooner than the first. Over time, the number of outbreaks may decrease.

Self-care

To ease symptoms:

  • Take acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or aspirin to relieve pain.
  • Apply cool compresses to sores several times a day to relieve pain and itching.
  • Women with sores on the vaginal lips (labia) can try urinating in a tub of water to avoid pain. 

Doing the following can help sores heal: 

  • Wash sores gently with soap and water. Then pat dry.
  • Do not bandage sores. Air speeds healing.
  • Do not pick at sores. They can get infected, which slows healing.
  • Do not use ointment or lotion on sores unless your health care provider prescribes it.

Wear loose-fitting cotton underwear. Do not wear nylon or other synthetic pantyhose or underwear. Also do not wear tight-fitting pants.

Medication

Genital herpes cannot be cured. Antiviral medication may relieve pain and discomfort. It may also reduce the number of outbreaks. If you are prescribed medication, follow your health care provider’s instructions about how to take it.

Possible side effects from herpes medication include:

  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Rash
  • Seizures
  • Tremor

Reducing Outbreaks

Take care of your health to lessen future outbreaks:

  • Get plenty of sleep. This helps keep your immune system strong.
  • Eat healthy foods. Good nutrition also helps your immune system stay strong.
  • Keep stress low. Constant stress can weaken your immune system.
  • Protect yourself from the sun, wind, and extreme cold and heat. Use sunscreen, especially on your lips. On windy, cold, or hot days, stay indoors or take steps to guard against the weather.

Preventing Spread of Herpes

Even when you do not have sores, you can pass (shed) the virus to someone during sexual or other close contact. To protect others: 

  • Let any sexual partner know that you have herpes before having sex. Allow him or her to decide what to do. If you both agree to have sex, use latex or polyurethane condoms.
  • Do not have vaginal, anal, or oral sex when you have sores on or near the genitals, anus, or mouth.
  • Do not kiss or have oral sex when you have a sore on the lips or inside the mouth.
  • Do not share your towels, toothbrush, or lipstick. Make sure dishes and utensils you use are washed well with detergent before others use them.
  • Wash your hands well with soap and water after touching a sore.

When to Call the Doctor

Call your health care provider if you have any of the following: 

  • Side effects from medication (see Medications above)
  • Symptoms of an outbreak worsen in spite of medication and self-care. Symptoms include severe pain and sores that do not heal.
  • Frequent outbreaks

References

Workowski KA, Berman S; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Sexually transmitted diseases treatment guidelines, 2010. MMWR Recomm Rep. 2010 Dec17;59(RR-12):1-110.

Lentz GM, Eckert LO. Infections of the lower genital tracts: vulva, vagina, cervix, toxic shock syndrome, endometritis, and salpingitis. In: Lentz GM, Lobo RA, Gershenson DM, Katz VL, eds. Comprehensive Gynecology. 6th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Mosby Elsevier; 2012:chap 23. 

Updated: 11/16/2012

Susan Storck, MD, FACOG, Chief, Eastside Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Group Health Cooperative of Puget Sound, Bellevue, Washington; Clinical Teaching Faculty, Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc., Editorial Team: David Zieve, MD, MHA, David R. Eltz, Stephanie Slon, and Nissi Wang.


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