The symptoms of herpes in females are very similar to those in males. The main difference is where the blisters appear. There is currently no cure for herpes, but treatment can help reduce outbreaks.
According to the Office on Women’s Health (OWH), herpes affects 1 in 5 females between the ages of 14 and 49 years.
This article will look at the symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment of herpes in females.
There are two types of herpes infection: the herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) and the herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2).
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), across the world, HSV-1 affects 3.7 billion people under the age of 50 years. HSV-2 affects 417 million people between the ages of 15 and 49 years.
Herpes infections are typically asymptomatic, but they can produce symptoms in some cases.
The sections below will discuss each type of herpes in more detail.
According to the WHO, HSV-1 is highly contagious and often appears as oral herpes, affecting the mouth and the area around it.
A person may come into contact with HSV-1 through nonsexual contact with another person’s saliva during their childhood and teenage years.
Sometimes, HSV-1 infections can cause genital herpes, which affects the genital or anal areas. HSV-1 can spread to the genitals through oral sex.
Some people refer to HSV-2 as genital herpes. HSV-2 typically spreads during anal, vaginal, or oral sex.
The WHO note that HSV-2 affects more females than males. The reason for this is that the transmission from males to females is more efficient.
Herpes will last a person’s lifetime. However, many people have either mild symptoms or no symptoms at all.
If herpes is asymptomatic, some people may not know that they have it. However, even in these cases, the virus can still spread.
The symptoms of an initial flare will depend on the type of herpes the person has.
According to the OWH, when a female first contracts herpes, the symptoms tend to occur within 2–12 days. They typically appear at the site where the virus entered the body.
The following symptoms typically last for 2–4 weeks:
- pressure in the abdomen
- flu-like symptoms, sometimes including fever
- pain in the legs or the anal or genital area
- swollen glands
- itching or burning in the genital or anal area
- unusual vaginal discharge
Following these symptoms, females may develop blisters, ulcers, or sores at the site where the virus entered the body. These blisters, or lesions, can resemble insect bites or small pimples. In time, they usually crust over and form a scab.
These lesions may appear in the following areas of the body:
- the mouth
- the cervix
- the anus
- the buttocks
- the thighs
- in or around the vagina
- the urinary tract
They can also affect any other area where the virus entered the body.
Although the initial symptoms often develop within a couple of weeks, it could take several months or years before a person experiences the next flare.
The initial symptoms of oral herpes may include:
- severe flu-like symptoms
- swollen lymph nodes
- lesions on or around the lips
- lesions inside the mouth
With later flares, a person may experience symptoms for a shorter period of time. Although the symptoms are often milder, they are typically similar to those of the initial outbreak.
Over time, a person is likely to experience fewer outbreaks, and they tend to be less severe.
The initial set of symptoms is often the worst.
However, during a flare, a female may experience:
- a burning sensation when urinating, if sores are present
- difficulty urinating, if sores cover the urethra
- itching and pain around the genitals
Recurrent oral herpes outbreaks are common in the first year of having the infection. They tend to lessen as time goes on because the body creates antibodies to fight the virus.
The sores typically erupt on the edges of a person’s lips.
Some common symptoms include:
- skin flushing, swelling, heat, itching, or pain on the affected area
- painful, fluid-filled blisters
- leaking blisters that turn into sores
The sores typically crust over and heal after about 4–6 days.
Possible triggers of outbreaks may include:
- prolonged exposure to sunlight
Herpes can spread as a result of coming into skin-to-skin contact with a person who has the virus. This can happen even if the person does not know that they have it.
According to the OWH, herpes can spread through:
- having vaginal, oral, or anal sex with someone who has the virus
- touching the genitals of a person who has the virus
- breastfeeding, if the baby comes into contact with a sore
- childbirth, with the pregnant person transmitting it to the baby
There is currently no cure for herpes. However, there are treatment options available that can help reduce the severity of future flares.
The sections below will look at some of the treatment options for genital and oral herpes.
A doctor will typically prescribe antiviral medication to treat genital herpes.
A person can take antiviral medication either during a flare, to help reduce the severity and length of the symptoms, or daily, to help prevent future flares.
A person should talk to their doctor about which medications are likely to work best for them.
During a flare, it is important to take some steps to help reduce the risk of passing the virus to others and minimize the severity of the flare.
Such steps include:
- keeping any sores or ulcers clean and dry
- avoiding sexual contact
- not touching the sores
- washing the hands or any other objects that come into contact with the sores
When determining the best treatment for oral herpes, a healthcare professional will take into consideration the person’s age, overall health, and tolerance for medication.
Some treatment options for oral herpes may include:
- keeping the area clean and dry
- taking oral antiviral medications
- using over-the-counter anesthetics or anti-inflammatory agents
The process of diagnosing herpes is similar for both types. The following sections will look at these processes in more detail.
A healthcare professional can make an initial diagnosis by carrying out a physical examination and checking any sores or ulcers on or near the genitals, anus, or mouth.
They may use a cotton swab or another similar device to take a fluid sample from a sore, which they will then send to a laboratory. At the laboratory, a technician will check the sample for herpes.
Between flares or before symptoms are present, it may be difficult for a doctor to diagnose herpes. However, if a person thinks that they may have herpes, a doctor can run a blood test to look for antibodies to the herpes virus.
To diagnose oral herpes, a doctor can examine the location and appearance of the blisters that have appeared.
They may also perform a blood test or biopsy to confirm the diagnosis.
If a person with herpes becomes pregnant, they should let their doctor know, as it is possible that herpes will pass to the baby during delivery. A doctor can take steps to help protect the baby.
If herpes passes to the baby during the birth, the baby will have neonatal herpes. Neonatal herpes is a serious condition. A baby with neonatal herpes may develop eye conditions or brain injuries. It can even be fatal.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), during the third trimester of pregnancy, a person should avoid having sexual activity with anyone who has genital herpes or suspected herpes.
A doctor may prescribe antiviral medication later on in the pregnancy to reduce the risk of a herpes outbreak. However, antiviral prophylaxis may not decrease the risk.
A healthcare professional may perform an examination before labor. If there are any symptoms of herpes, a cesarean delivery may be necessary.
The only guaranteed way to prevent the spread of herpes is to avoid having any physical contact with a person who has the infection.
However, there are other steps that a person can take to reduce the risk, including:
People who are sexually active should see a doctor regularly to undergo screenings for sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
A person who suspects that they may have come into contact with herpes should see a doctor to get a test.
A person should also see a doctor if they experience any symptoms of genital or oral herpes. A doctor can confirm a diagnosis and discuss the treatment options.
If someone who has genital herpes becomes pregnant, they should see a healthcare provider to prevent passing the virus to the baby.
It is possible for pregnant people with genital herpes to deliver a baby safely, but a doctor needs to be aware of the situation to do this effectively.
Herpes is a virus that currently has no cure. However, treatment options are available to reduce the symptoms.
Females with herpes may not experience any symptoms of the infection, but even if this is the case, the virus can still spread to others.
Symptomatic herpes typically presents with open, painful sores or ulcers on or around the genitals, anus, or mouth.
People should practice protected sex and undergo frequent testing to reduce their risk.
Pregnant people should let their doctor know if they have herpes to help prevent passing the infection to the baby.