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What Side Effects Are Associated With Genital Herpes?

A woman standing behind a man while holding a light therapy device for side effects of genital herpes


"You have genital herpes."

That's not something anyone wants to hear from their healthcare provider. But if you do, you're not alone. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than one in six Americans between ages 14 and 49 have genital herpes.

As with any medical diagnosis, it's always best to have as much information about your condition as possible.

There are several potential symptoms and side effects of genital herpes, including some unusual symptoms and some possible social consequences as well. In addition, medical and supplemental treatments for genital herpes can produce a variety of side effects.

But first, what is the difference between a symptom and a side effect?

The Difference Between Symptoms and Side Effects

Medically speaking, a side effect is different from a symptom.

A symptom is a noticeable change in the body that indicates the presence of disease or dysfunction. Fever, cough and headache are all examples of symptoms of the flu.

A side effect, on the other hand, is a secondary, undesired negative effect usually from a treatment or medication. For example, chemotherapy drugs are intended to kill cancer cells. That's their desired effect. But many chemotherapy patients lose their hair. This is a side effect of the chemotherapy. It's not the reason patients take the medication, but it occurs nonetheless.

Below, we'll look at both symptoms and side effects. We'll discuss some common (and less common) symptoms of genital herpes, possible social side effects of genital herpes, and the most common side effects of genital herpes treatments.

side effects of genital herpes

Symptoms of Genital Herpes

Genital herpes is caused by an infection with the herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2), and sometimes with the herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1)

Even after they become infected, some lucky people never experience any genital herpes symptoms, and others have symptoms so mild they never notice.

Those who do develop genital herpes symptoms can have varying experiences, but some symptoms are more common than others.

Common Symptoms of Genital Herpes

The hallmark symptom of genital herpes is the small red bumps or tiny white blisters that appear after infection. Ulcers can form when the blisters rupture. Eventually, after the ulcers heal, scabs appear. The area affected by the herpes lesions is usually itchy or painful.

Outbreaks can occur on the genitals, anus, buttocks or upper thighs. For women, lesions can also develop inside the body, in the vagina or on the cervix.

Genital herpes symptoms come and go. Once someone has been infected with a herpes virus, it will always be present in their body, lying dormant in their nerves. The itchy, painful lesions only appear when a trigger reactivates the virus.

For most people, outbreaks occur less often as time passes.

Less Common Symptoms of Genital Herpes

Flu-like symptoms can accompany a genital herpes infection, but are more common during the initial outbreak. Symptoms can include muscle aches, fever and swollen lymph nodes.

Headaches plague about 15% of people who experience recurrent genital herpes outbreaks. In very rare cases, a headache combined with a stiff neck, fever, light sensitivity, confusion and other symptoms can indicate a more serious condition called herpes meningoencephalitis, which requires immediate emergency medical attention.

A general feeling of being "run down" and exhausted can also accompany a first outbreak. You may notice this along with other symptoms, like swollen lymph nodes in your groin or flu-like symptoms, or you may experience the fatigue all on its own.

Social Side Effects of Genital Herpes

Despite being one of the most common sexually transmitted infections, herpes still carries an unfortunate social stigma. Sadly, this can affect your relationships. But these challenges can be navigated with a little thought and education!

It Might Be More Challenging To Find Partners

Hopefully this will become less true as more people become educated about genital herpes. But for now, having the facts about genital herpes can help you talk more openly with potential sexual partners.

Though it can be daunting and awkward, it's important to disclose your genital herpes diagnosis to a new potential sexual partner. And sometimes learning more about the disease can help to lessen their fear.

For instance, one helpful study shows that if an infected person takes daily valacyclovir as a preventative, they have a less than 2% chance of spreading HSV-2 to a sexual partner.

Social Stigma

The social stigma surrounding genital herpes can be more difficult to deal with than the herpes virus itself! This stigma can sometimes result in anxiety, depression and low self esteem.

Again, arming yourself with facts about genital herpes and the stigma it carries can help you combat these struggles.

Common Side Effects of Genital Herpes Treatments

Doctors commonly prescribe antiviral medications to treat genital herpes. These medications are highly effective at preventing and reducing outbreaks, and also at preventing the spread of herpes from person to person.

But just like any other medication, antivirals for genital herpes carry the risk of certain side effects.

Possible Side Effects of Valtrex

Valtrex is the brand name of the antiviral drug valacyclovir hydrochloride, which is used to treat several types of herpes viruses. It is taken in pill form.

Some of the more common side effects of Valtrex include:

  • headache
  • dizziness
  • depression
  • nausea and vomiting
  • stomach pain
  • joint pain
  • skin rash

Possible Side Effects of Zovirax

Zovirax is the brand name of the antiviral drug acyclovir. Acyclovir treats multiple types of herpes viruses. It can be taken as a pill, cream formulation, liquid or injection.

Zovirax side effects can include any of the following:

  • malaise
  • nausea and vomiting
  • diarrhea
  • abdominal pain
  • headache

Possible Side Effects of Famvir

Famvir is the brand name of the antiviral drug famciclovir, which also treats a range of herpes viruses. It comes in pill form.

Possible side effects of Famvir may include:

  • headache
  • tiredness
  • nausea
  • gas
  • stomach pain
  • diarrhea
  • dizziness
  • skin rash

Side Effects of Light Therapy for Genital Herpes

Red light therapy has been used to successfully treat many skin conditions, including genital herpes. Clinical research indicates that treatment with red light not only heals genital herpes outbreaks faster, it also reduces their rate of recurrence.

Previously, red light therapy was only available in a clinical setting. Today, companies have developed at-home devices like the Luminance RED Genital Sore Treatment Device to help you manage your condition in the privacy of your own home.

One major benefit of red light therapy for genital herpes is that the treatment produces little to no side effects. Researchers consistently note the absence of side effects when studying red light therapy for dermatological uses.

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