Genital herpes, also commonly called "herpes," is a viral infection by the herpes simplex virus (HSV) that is transmitted through intimate contact with the mucous-covered linings of the mouth or the vagina or the genital skin. The virus enters the linings or skin through microscopic tears. Once inside, the virus travels to the nerve roots near the spinal cord and settles there permanently.
When an infected person has a herpes outbreak, the virus travels down the nerve fibers to the site of the original infection. When it reaches the skin, the typical redness and blisters occur. After the initial outbreak, subsequent outbreaks tend to be sporadic. They may occur weekly or even years apart.
Two types of herpes viruses are associated with genital lesions: herpes simplex virus-1 (HSV-1) and herpes simplex virus-2 (HSV-2). HSV-1 more often causes blisters of the mouth area while HSV-2 more often causes genital sores or lesions in the area around the anus. The outbreak of herpes is closely related to the functioning of the immune system. Women who have suppressed immune systems, because of stress, infection, or medications, have more frequent and longer-lasting outbreaks.
It is estimated that as many as 50 million persons in the United States are infected with genital HSV. Genital herpes is spread only by direct person-to-person contact. It is believed that 60% of sexually active adults carry the herpes virus. Part of the reason for the continued high infection rate is that most women infected with the herpes virus do not know that they are infected because they have few or no symptoms. In many women, there are "atypical" outbreaks where the only symptom may be mild itching or minimal discomfort. Moreover, the longer the woman has had the virus, the fewer the symptoms they have with their outbreaks. Finally, the virus can shed from the cervix into the vagina in women who are not experiencing any symptoms.
Women may be more susceptible to genital herpes infections because:
•The genital area has a greater surface area of cells moist with body fluids (mucosal cells) than men.
•Hormone changes during a woman’s menstrual cycle may affect the immune system, making it easier for the herpes simplex virus to cause an infection.