Objectives: To assess the psychological impact of first episode of genital herpes, and to determine whether this changes over time.
Setting and subjects: The Departments of Genitourinary Medicine (GUM), and Dermatology, Middlesex Hospital London. The study group consisted of patients attending the department of GUM with a clinically proven first episode of genital herpes. Two control groups were recruited; firstly patients without herpes attending the GUM Department and secondly patients attending the Dermatology Department out patients with chronic dermatoses.
Methods: Patients and controls completed an 87 item, self-administered psychological questionnaire at 3 monthly intervals for a year. The questionnaire consisted of the General Health Questionnaire (GHQ); the Hospital Anxiety and Depression Questionnaire (HADQ); Illness Attitude Scales and Illness Concern. Patients were also asked questions about their sexual behaviour.
Results: Ninety one patients (68 women, 23 men) with genital herpes, 61 GUM controls (42 women, 19 men) and 56 dermatology controls (36 women, 20 men) participated. There were no statistically significant demographic differences between patients and controls. At first visit the proportion of patients classified as "cases" by the GHQ (GHQ cases) were similar for primary herpes patients 62% (56/91) and Dermatology controls 52% (29/56) while a significantly smaller proportion of GUM controls 34% (21/61) were classified as GHQ cases. The primary herpes group were significantly more concerned about their illness than either the GUM controls or the Dermatology controls (p < 0.002). The proportion of primary herpes patients classified as "cases" by the GHQ reduced significantly over the initial three month period with 67% of patients classified as "cases" at their first visit becoming "noncases" after three months (p < 0.0001). Also 50% of those classified as "cases" at first visit by the HADQ become "noncases" after the initial three months (p = 0.007). The illness concern scores also decreased significantly from visit one to visit two (means 14.7 vs. 12.3; p < 0.0001).
Conclusion: The diagnosis of a first episode of genital herpes has a profound emotional effect on patients. If they do not have recurrent episodes, their emotional state improves. For those who do have recurrences, the level of anxiety and concern remains as high as at the time of their first diagnosis. Clinicians must be sensitive to the emotional impact such a diagnosis may bring.