What is genital herpes?

Genital herpes is a common infection caused by the Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV), which is found on the skin of men and women who are infected. You might hear people refer to HSV type 1 and HSV type 2. These are two types of herpes virus that cause similar symptoms but are genetically slightly different. About seven out of every ten people in the UK carry type 1 and/or type 2.

Although oral herpes (often known as cold sores) is commonly associated with HSV 1, both HSV type 1 and HSV type 2 commonly affect the genitals. The symptoms are the same with both types but generally speaking, HSV type 1 is less troublesome in terms of the frequency of it coming back.

It is a long-term condition and once caught, the virus remains in the body. This means it can appear for the first time and reappear years after you caught it. This is why genital herpes/HSV does not imply that a partner has cheated.

Listen to Jill Ladlow, one of our expert Sexual Health Nurses, give an overview on genital herpes in the video below. She explains about symptoms, how people catch it, how you can get tested and what the treatment usually involves.

What are the symptoms?

Many people have no symptoms and can carry the virus for years without knowing. Others may experience symptoms within a few days of being exposed. If you have symptoms of genital herpes, you may experience:

  • Stinging, tingling or itching around your genitals or anus
  • Painful blisters filled with fluid in the genitals and anal area. After a few days the blisters may burst and leave painful red sores that can take up to three weeks to clear on an initial episode
  • Pain when peeing
  • Unusual discharge from your genitals
  • Flu-like symptoms such as fever, tiredness, headache and swollen glands
  • Pain/swelling of the lymph glands in your groin (at the top of your legs)

Genital herpes remains in the body and symptoms can appear for the first time and then reappear years after you caught it.

How do you catch it?

Genital herpes is usually caught through small cracks in the skin, mouth, genitals (vagina, rectum, urethra) and under the foreskin at the end of the penis.

It can be passed on through sex without a condom with someone who has the virus. It can also be passed on through skin-to-skin contact if the infected area is not fully covered by a condom. Many people don’t realise that genital herpes can be caught through sharing sex toys if you don’t wash or cover them with a new condom each time they’re used.

HSV rarely passes from an infected mother to her baby during childbirth. If you know you have HSV and are pregnant or are planning a pregnancy, do discuss this with your midwife, GP or sexual health team.

You cannot get genital herpes from hugging, sharing baths, towels, cups and cutlery, swimming pools or toilet seats.

How do you prevent it?

Avoid having sex without a condom or receiving oral sex from partners with cold sores. Using a condom can make a big difference as long as it is put on before the genitals touch and covers the whole infected area.

If you or your partner has any symptoms, avoid contact with the infected area until it has completely healed. A female condom covers a wider area so may be more useful for some people.

However, genital herpes is often transmitted by people who don’t know they are infected and don’t have any symptoms.

How can you get tested?

A clinician experienced in sexual health can often give a clinical diagnosis for genital herpes by listening to your symptoms and examining your genitals. The diagnosis will be confirmed by taking a swab from an active sore or blister. Once the sores or blisters have cleared up, it will be too late to test for the virus.

Often, people start treatment before test results come back and will continue even if results come back as negative. This might be because you don’t have the infection or because there wasn’t enough fluid left to accurately test.

If you have genital herpes and your partner is experiencing symptoms, it is very important to encourage them to get tested so they can get the treatment they need. If you prefer, your sexual health service can support you in how to tell your partner.

What treatment is available?

Genital herpes is treated with a course of antiviral medication that should be started as soon as possible after experiencing symptoms. You may be given an extra dose of medication to keep at home in case this comes back. You can take this medication as soon as symptoms reappear.

Some people have more frequent and troublesome recurrences of genital herpes and may prefer to take treatment continuously for a period of time to prevent any episodes from starting. Your local sexual health team will be happy to offer advice.

Simple measures like taking a regular painkiller such as paracetamol, bathing in salt water and avoiding wearing tight clothing while you have symptoms can also help.

Useful links

  • BAASH (British Association for Sexual Health and HIV) has a comprehensive patient information leaflet on Herpes available
  • NHS Choices has lots of information about STIs including a specific page on genital herpes and a video of Emma’s story of having genital herpes
  • Brook has more information and advice on STIs written for people under 25, including genital Herpes
  • The Herpes Virus Association helps to improve life for people with herpes simplex and has a website full of useful information and signposting
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