Recurrent outbreaks of genital herpes may happen, with some patients having four to six outbreaks in the span of a year. Compared to the first infection, subsequent recurrences are less painful and occur in shorter periods than the first infection. There are some patients, however, who don’t have another outbreak for many years or even once more during their lifetime.11
Herpes infection of the genital tract is a sexually transmitted infection (sexually transmitted disease or STD). Like in the mouth area, herpes symptoms and signs include a painful, blistering rash around or on the genital or rectal areas. These lesions open and result in painful sores that can take two to four weeks to heal. The sores can sometimes cause painful urination. Recurrent outbreaks are typical, and the time between outbreaks varies among affected people and even within the same individual. Prior to an outbreak, a tingling, burning, or itching sensation may be present on the area of involved skin.
While some people realize that they have genital herpes, many do not. It is estimated that one in five persons in the United States has genital herpes; however, as many as 90 percent are unaware that they have the virus. This is because many people have very mild symptoms that go unrecognized or are mistaken for another condition or no symptoms at all.
Although the cause is unknown, outbreaks are often associated with periods of weakened immune systems, skin wounds, menstruation, fever, nerve damage, tissue damage from surgery, or exposure to extreme climate situations. A genital herpes outbreak or episode occurs when the HSV-1 or HSV-2 virus is reactivated from its dormant stage. Genital herpes is an incurable disease, and once you contract it, you may experience outbreaks throughout your lifetime. Those who are experiencing their first herpes episode of genital herpes can expect to have several (typically four or five) outbreaks within a year. Over time these recurrences usually decrease in frequency and severity. The first outbreak of herpes is often the longest outbreak experienced. After that, short and inconsistent episodes can be managed and treated with antiviral medication.
At the other end of the spectrum, there is a possibility of a herpetic flare up taking a sinister turn and leading to herpetic encephalitis. It is estimated to affect at least 1 in 500,000 individuals per year. The mechanism of this is not fully understood, but it is believed that the infection occurs through direct transmission of the virus via nerves from other parts of the body to the brain. In such cases, a person may complain of fever, headache, and lethargy, followed by confusion or delirium. In some cases, some people even develop seizures. This requires immediate medical attention and treatment.
In fact, “atypical symptoms” are the reason that so many people don’t know they have herpes. Their reality is nothing like the scary images that pop up when you Google image search the term. Atypical symptoms include things like nerve pain, achy muscles, itching, and tingling. Some women I talked to reported being misdiagnosed with frequent yeast infections or bacterial infections before receiving their herpes diagnosis. “With your first episode, you can have fever, fatigue, and flu-like symptoms,” says Cullins.
A doctor will base a presumptive diagnosis on information provided by the patient and on the physical examination. The characteristic appearance of the herpes sores leaves little doubt about the diagnosis, so the typical appearance of the sores is key to the diagnosis. This appearance helps distinguish oral herpes from oral thrush, shingles, gonorrhea, and syphilis. In addition, chapped or sunburned lips can resemble oral herpes, but the tissue stain (Tzanck smear, see below) shows no virus-induced cell changes. Further testing is usually not necessary but is sometimes done.