Herpes Complications to Watch Out For

Genital herpes, a sexually transmitted disease that causes painful sores in your genital and rectal area and can reoccur regularly, doesn't typically result in long-term serious health problems. But in some instances, an outbreak of genital herpes can usher in a severe, long-lasting, and debilitating complication. And if you're pregnant, your baby can be affected as well, so it's important to let your healthcare provider know if you've ever had herpes.

"Babies can get herpes from the mother at birth," says Jill Rabin, MD, chief of ambulatory care, obstetrics and gynecology and head of urogynecology at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in New Hyde Park, NY. "Herpes in the mother can be extremely dangerous to her unborn baby, especially when the mother has just been infected and hasn't had time to develop antibodies yet."

Even if you have a normal immune system, being infected with the herpes virus can mean you potentially could wind up with a complication like ocular herpes.

While treatable, it's important to monitor this eye infection as it can be serious. Generally, it presents as a painful sore, either on the eyelid or surface of the eye. It may be treated with anti-viral drugs but can sometimes spread and develop into a more severe infection. Some 400,000 Americans have ocular herpes and 50,000 new cases are diagnosed in the U.S. every year. 

Another possible complication is a neurological condition called postherpetic neuralgia, Rabin says. "This is a painful condition that can last for months," she says. The discomfort from this condition, which can be mild to severe, is treated with over-the-counter pain relievers as well as stronger prescription medicines like codeine and hydrocodone. Some individuals get relief from an antidepressant or from electrical nerve stimulators.

Bladder problems can also result from herpes, which may make you more vulnerable to contracting other sexually transmitted diseases. In rare instances, herpes even can cause hepatitis or pneumonia, Rabin says. It's also possible but rare for herpes to cause meningitis, a potentially life-threatening illness in which the membranes and cerebrospinal fluid surrounding your brain and spinal cord become inflamed.

Although there's not currently a medication that will cure genital herpes, you can take a medicine that will help your body fight off the virus as well as reduce the severity of the symptoms, lower the incidence of outbreaks, and reduce your risk of transmitting the virus to others. While correctly using latex condoms reduces the risk of contracting or spreading the herpes virus, it does not completely eliminate this risk.

If a pregnant woman has a history of herpes, she may be put on a medication, too, Rabin says. "We put her on suppressant therapy, which reduces the chances of the baby contracting herpes as the baby passes through the birth canal," she says.

If the baby contracts herpes during the birth process, it can affect the baby's eyes, the skin, and the central nervous system. "We don't want a mother delivering if she hasn't been on suppressant medication," Rabin says. "If we're not sure she has herpes, or if we see lesions but we are not sure, we may do a cesarian so the baby won't contract herpes."

Jill Rabin, MD, reviewed this article.




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