Vaginal herpes is a herpes simplex virus, usually type 2, occurring in the vagina. Herpes simplex viruses live in the dorsal nerve root ganglion and maybe shed from the skin or mucous membranes without the symptoms of an infection being present. This type of herpes can be contracted by genital to genital contact or especially in the case of the herpes simplex type 1 virus, vaginal herpes can be contracted with oral to genital contact from a person with fever blisters around the mouth.
The primary, or first time outbreak of herpes, can be a devastating illness. In addition to multiple small blisters in and around the vagina that turn into ulcers, the lymph nodes in the groin are swollen and tender. Also a woman who has a primary vaginal herpes infection will run a low grade fever. Typically, she has the feeling of coming down with a flu-like illness until the blisters begin to develop identifying the true reason for the fever. Burning with urination is also a common symptom of primary vaginal herpes.
Unlike the primary outbreak, which is a systemic illness, the secondary or recurrent outbreaks are self limited and short lived. In secondary vaginal herpes outbreaks there are few blisters turning into ulcers and no systemic symptoms such as swollen lymph nodes or fever. While the primary outbreak of herpes usually lasts for up to a week, secondary outbreaks are only three or four days.
In addition to viral shedding during any outbreak from herpes, patients can shed virus when no symptoms are occurring. Since the virus remains in the dorsal nerve roots it can come out long the nerve ends at any time. For this reason many women with known herpes infections will take an antiviral medication to suppress viral shedding. This will reduce the number of outbreaks of vaginal herpes and help protect sexual partners from catching the virus.