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Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by a similar type of virus (herpes simplex) that is associated with the common cold sore.
It’s passed on through vaginal, anal, and oral sex, and it’s more transmissible in people who have unprotected sex or change partners frequently. The most obvious sign of a herpes infection is painful blisters on the genitals, anus, thighs, and bottom.
There is no cure for genital herpes, but anti-viral medication (Aciclovir) can stop the symptoms from getting worse and help relieve the pain and manage outbreaks.
Genital herpes is caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). There are two types:
- Herpes simplex virus-1 (HSV-1)
- Herpes simplex virus-2 (HSV-2)
Both can cause genital herpes, but it’s more commonly associated with HSV-2.
It’s passed on through vaginal, anal, and oral sex with someone who has the infection, even when they aren’t displaying symptoms.
The most obvious sign of genital herpes is blisters on the genitals, anus, thighs, and bottom. These blisters will eventually burst to leave red, open sores.
Other symptoms include:
- Tingling, burning, or itching around the genitals
- Cracked or red areas around the infected area without tingling or itching
- Pain when you use the toilet
- Unusual vaginal discharge in women
- Flu-like symptoms such as a fever, swollen lymph nodes, and fatigue
If you have any of these symptoms, contact your GP or a sexual health clinic.
Genital herpes is not life-threatening, but there is no cure. Once you have the herpes simplex virus, it remains dormant in your system for life. Occasionally, it will reactivate causing outbreaks of the virus to reoccur, but these episodes are usually mild.
If you are pregnant and you have genital herpes there is a risk that you might pass on the virus to your baby during child birth. Though this risk is small, neonatal herpes can be dangerous, so you should discuss this with your midwife or GP.
There is no cure for genital herpes, but you can use antiviral medication to manage the symptoms. The drug, Aciclovir, can reduce an outbreak by one to two days if it’s taken within five days of the symptoms first appearing.
If you have more than six outbreaks in a year, your doctor may recommend that you take a low dose of Aciclovir for six to twelve months.
Genital herpes can take months or even years to show up after you’ve been infected.
The first time you have genital herpes is usually the most severe. It can last between two to three weeks depending on how you treat it and your body’s reaction to the virus.
Subsequent outbreaks are less severe and pass within a few days but this can vary from person-to-person.
The most obvious sign of genital herpes is small, red blisters on your genitals, anus, thighs, and bottom. These painful blisters will burst to leave red open sores that eventually scab over. If you’re unsure whether you have genital herpes, make an appointment with your GP or local sexual health clinic for an accurate diagnosis.
Genital herpes usually clears up on its own, but anti-viral medication, like Aciclovir, can be used to manage symptoms and shorten the duration of outbreaks. If the blisters are painful or uncomfortable, there are things you can do at home:
- Keep the area clean to prevent infection and wear loose fitting clothes
- Use an ice pack wrapped in a cloth to soothe the area
- Apply petroleum jelly or a pain killing cream to reduce pain when you pee
- Increase your fluid intake to dilute your urine
We also recommend that you avoid having sex until after your blisters have healed.
Genital herpes usually takes between two to three weeks to clear up, the first time you have it. This varies depending on how your body reacts to the virus and how you treat it.
Subsequent outbreaks are usually less severe and pass within a few days. In some cases, you may not be aware that the virus has reactivated in your system.
Once you have genital herpes, it remains in your system for life. Though there is no cure, anti-viral medication can shorten the duration of recurrent outbreaks and help to manage the symptoms. The first time you have genital herpes is referred to as the ‘primary episode’ and this is usually the worst with further episodes less severe.
It is possible to catch genital herpes from someone who has oral herpes (a cold sore).
If a cold sore touches your genitals during oral sex, it can cause genital herpes.
More than 13% of the world’s population (aged between 15 and 49) were living with genital herpes in 2016. It is incredibly common but is rarely talked about because of the stigma attached to sexually transmitted infections.
Direct skin-to-skin contact is the most common way of catching genital herpes, that includes vaginal, anal, or oral sex with someone who has the virus, even if they are not displaying any symptoms at that time. You can also pass it on by:
- Transferring the infection between the fingers and genitals
- Sharing sex toys with a person who has herpes
It is possible to catch herpes from a cold sore, if contact is made with the genitals.
You should remember that you cannot catch genital herpes from objects, such as cutlery or a toilet seat – the virus dies very quickly when away from the skin.
Most people only experience mild symptoms which eventually clear up on their own, however the blisters that accompany genital herpes can be uncomfortable.
Some people find that an ice pack covered in a cloth can help soothe the affected area. To help manage the pain when you pee, try using Vaseline or a painkilling cream. We also recommend keeping the area clean and wearing loose fitting, cotton underwear.
If you think you have genital herpes, make an appointment with your local sexual health clinic where they can diagnose your condition. They will ask about your symptoms and take a swab from one of your blisters to be sent away for testing. If you do not have any blisters or sores, they may not be able to test you for genital herpes.
It’s important to tell your previous sexual partners, so they can be tested too. The experienced medical staff at the sexual health clinic can help you do this without letting them know that it’s you who has the virus.