One Woman's Curse of Having Genital Herpes

by Florence Cardinal

Four years ago Gina thought she had her world well in control. At twenty-three, she was engaged to be married and actively pursuing a career in law enforcement. Then her life took a nasty turn.

One morning she came down with what she thought was a yeast infection. She experienced itching in her genital area and a painful, burning sensation while urinating. She wasn't too concerned - until the next day when her temperature rose to 104 degrees and she developed flu-like symptoms.

Later that day, she discovered sores or lesions in the genital area and went to see her gynecologist. She was shocked when the doctor calmly ordered a herpes culture for her.

"He asked for it just like he was asking for a napkin to be passed over," Gina said in an interview. "I was totally shocked. I was engaged to be married. I didn't fool around. How could I have contracted herpes?"

She submitted to the tests. The doctor told her he would have the results in a week and asked her to come back then. Two days later she ended up in the emergency ward with a dangerously high fever. She was so ill she could barely walk and so sore that she had to fill the bathtub with warm water and sit in it in order to urinate.

The emergency room staff had no idea what was wrong with Gina. They told her to contact a gynecologist and sent her home with percocet, a narcotic pain reliever that did nothing to help her.

The next day the mystery was solved when she called her gynecologist and discovered she had tested positive for genital herpes.

Her doctor prescribed the antiviral drug Valtrex, a common treatment for all herpes infections. He told her to take it twice a day for seven days. However, he gave her no information about the disease, and she had no idea that what she had was a lifelong incurable viral infection.

Still puzzled as to how she had contracted the infection, she asked her fiance if there was any chance he had herpes. He denied it and continued to deny it over the next couple of months. Then he had an outbreak and remarked that it had been a lot worse the year before. It became obvious that he did have herpes although he had not admitted it earlier either because he didn't realize what he had or because he was ashamed to admit it. He had never gone for treatment. The knowledge caused much distrust and bitterness and the relationship came to an end.

When Gina researched genital herpes, she realized the serious nature of her illness and discovered the social stigma attached to it. Many people believe that genital herpes is a disease of the promiscuous and anyone who contracts it must be "unclean." Gina became depressed. She began to miss work, withdraw socially and lose focus on her dream career in law enforcement. She felt, she said, like her life was over.

Determined to learn more about her disease, Gina began doing more research, mostly through Internet sources. She changed doctors and was put on the suppressive antiviral medication, Famvir. This has reduced her outbreaks from two major outbreaks a month to a couple of minor outbreaks a year.

Dr. Hilary Baldwin, clinical instructor of Dermatology at New York University Medical Center in New York and a specialist in genital herpes, emphasizes that the disease is treatable.

"It's difficult to treat because it's a viral disease, not bacterial," Dr. Baldwin said in a recent interview. "It hides in the ganglia of the nerve root where there's no blood supply. The ganglia are avascular (having no or few blood vessels.) Therefore, the infection cannot be treated until an outbreak occurs."

When asked if there are carriers, people who have it without knowing it, Dr. Baldwin stated that eighty percent of the people who have genital herpes are either not aware of what they have or don't know they have the infection at all.

Some who do suffer from the symptoms have no idea what they have and never go for treatment because the outbreak does eventually disappear. Others have no symptoms whatsoever.

Some people never go for treatment because of the stigma attached to the disease. They think it only happens to people who are promiscuous. This is wrong because anyone can contract herpes. Dr. Baldwin says she has treated everyone from CEOs of major companies to young teens after their first sexual experience.

"I had one patient," she says, "who was a seventy-two-year old woman who had never had sex with anyone but her husband and he had been dead for twenty-five years. Somewhere in the past, one of them had contracted the disease, and she had had it all this time without realizing what was wrong."

The good news is that, thanks to learning more about the disease and finally, with the help of a reliable doctor, Gina has her life back on track. She is again pursuing her goal of a career in law enforcement and hopes to graduate this year. She is also hoping to eventually marry and have children. "It's quite safe," Gina told me. "There's no danger to the baby unless the mother is having an outbreak at the time of birth."

Every attempt is made to prevent the occurrence of an outbreak as the time of birth approaches. However, if an outbreak should occur, then the baby is delivered by Cesarean section to avoid the inflamed birth canal.

It's important for people to learn to recognize genital herpes and get treatment as soon as possible. Many sources list the main symptom as blisters around the genital area. However, this is misleading. Often these blisters, especially on a woman, are small and barely noticeable.

Symptoms vary greatly from person to person and may include any or all of the following:

  • Itching or burning in the genital area.
  • Pain in the legs and buttocks.
  • Discharge from the vagina.
  • Sores in and around the genital area.
  • Sores in the urinary tract that may cause painful urination.
  • High fever
  • Headache
  • Swollen glands in the groin area
  • General feeling of malaise.

Some cases of genital herpes can be avoided with a bit of caution. If you have herpes, avoid any sexual contact during an outbreak. And, to reduce the chances of contracting the disease, as with all sexually transmitted diseases, use a condom.

Another interviewee said, "If you have a cold sore and then engage in oral sex, you can transmit the disease and give your partner herpes simplex one. I remember seeing a story about it and how, until a doctor told a couple about it, a marriage almost was destroyed. (The wife, who had a cold sore, performed oral sex on her husband and gave him the disease. He, in turn, gave it back to her as genital herpes and they both were convinced the other had been cheating and were thinking of divorce.)

For an excellent article on genital herpes, read this article:

What You Need to Know About Genital Herpes

Florence Cardinal is About's Guide to Sleep Disorders. If you or someone you know has any type of sleep problem, visit About Sleep Disorders for expert articles, community support, and related resources.

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