Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted infection (STI), caused by a virus called herpes simplex virus (HSV). There are two different types of the virus HSV1 and HSV2, both of which can affect the genitals. One of the types is the same virus that causes cold sores (HSV1) around the mouth.
Genital herpes causes painful blisters and sores on and around the genitals. It can also sometimes cause problems if it is picked up for the first time either very early or very late in pregnancy.
HSV is easily passed from person to person by close, direct contact including kissing, vaginal and anal sex (genital contact), oral sex (mouth to genital contact) and sharing sex toys.
Many people who have and pass on the virus may not even know they have herpes as it is possible to carry the virus without having any symptoms.
Often none at all. If you do experience symptoms it usually takes between two and twelve days after contact with the virus for the first symptoms of genital herpes to appear. Symptoms may not appear until months, or sometimes years, after you have been exposed to the virus.
Once you have picked up the infection, the virus stays hidden in your body. It can lie dormant (sleeping) for long periods, but can reactivate in the area that was originally infected.
If the virus reactivates, sores and blisters can reappear. This is known as a ‘recurrent episode’ of genital herpes. Type 2 virus is more likely to reappear than type 1.
This first episode of genital herpes may last from two to four weeks. Repeated episodes are not usually as severe as the first and you may never have a repeat episode.
Symptoms of the first infection can include:
- multiple spots or red bumps around the genital area. These can be very painful. In time, these swellings can break open and form sores or ulcers which gradually crust over, forming new skin as they heal
- blisters and ulceration on the cervix (neck of womb)
- vaginal discharge
- pain when you pass urine or an inability to pass urine
- generally feeling unwell. These may be flu-like symptoms such as backache, headache and a temperature, and mild swelling of the lymph glands in the groin, armpits and neck.
If you have a recurrent infection, your symptoms may include;
- a tingling or burning sensation before blisters appear (this can signal the onset of a recurrent infection)
- painful red blisters, which form ulcers
- blisters and ulceration on the cervix
If you think you or your partner may have the symptoms of genital herpes, you should get checked out.
The genital herpes test is simple and straightforward. If you or your partner are worried that you may have genital herpes, contact the sexual health service. It is important to confirm the diagnosis. If you are pregnant and have herpes, tell your midwife as soon as possible.
Herpes testing can be done by the sexual health service and some GPs. Find your nearest sexual health service here.
If there are symptoms present (blisters, sores and ulcers), the doctor or nurse may be able to make a diagnosis straight away.
If you have visible blisters, the doctor or nurse will take a swab to identify the virus. A full sexual health screen is recommended.
A swab looks a bit like a cotton bud and collecting a sample only takes a moment. It is not painful, although it may feel a little uncomfortable.
Although there is no cure for herpes, the symptoms of genital herpes can be treated and there are some things you can do to help prevent symptoms coming back.
Once you have been infected with genital herpes, the virus stays in your body and can cause symptoms to reappear from time to time.
Recurrent episodes of genital herpes will clear up by themselves without any treatment, but there is medication to help speed up the healing process. You should, however, always visit the sexual health service or GP to be sure that it is the herpes virus that is causing your symptoms.
The doctor may prescribe antiviral tablets to speed up the healing process and reduce the severity of an episode. If you start taking the medication as soon as an outbreak begins, this may shorten or even stop the episode.
Some people experience frequent recurrences of genital herpes. In these cases, a longer course of tablets should prevent any recurrent episodes. Talk to your doctor or nurse at the sexual health service, or to your GP about possible treatment options that may suit you.
Always use a condom to help protect against genital herpes. However, condoms are not 100% effective as if the virus is present and active on the skin in areas around the genitals not covered by the condom (as is often the case), the virus can still be passed on.
If you have herpes, you can follow some simple guidelines to avoid passing the virus on to your partner(s), and to continue to have a healthy and happy sex life:
- Learn to recognise the warning signs (tingling, itching or inflammation) that an the episode is starting. Avoid sex at this time.
- Do not allow anyone to come into direct contact with your sores or blisters.
- Avoid kissing and oral sex when you or your partner has cold sores around mouth – or you feel that sores may be developing.
Keep a record of when you have an episode of genital herpes. You may see a pattern developing, and be able to identify your trigger factors.
Many people find that episodes occur when they’re run-down, under stress, around the time of menstruation (periods), or when the skin gets irritated due to friction or tight clothing. If you do identify any trigger factors, try to adjust your lifestyle to avoid or reduce your exposure to them.
If you have frequent episodes of herpes then it is worth talking to your sexual health clinic or GP about longer term treatment which may also reduce the chance of you passing on the virus to your partner