Genital herpes is caused by a virus called the herpes simplex virus (HSV). There are 2 types of HSV – HSV1, which normally causes sores in the mouth or hands and can cause genital herpes; and HSV2 which causes genital herpes.
There is no cure for genital herpes but symptoms and the virus can be managed.
Learn about the symptoms, management and prevention of genital herpes here.
What are the symptoms of genital herpes?
Many people with genital herpes have very mild or few symptoms, so much so that they may never realise they have the disease. When you have symptoms, this is referred to as an ‘episode’ or ‘outbreak’, so the first set of symptoms you have is called the ‘primary episode’.
Primary episode symptoms appear 2-4 weeks after you become infected. They include:
- Sores or blisters in the genital area – on the penis, vulva, vagina, anus. Also on the cervix and in the anal canal.
- The blisters are small and painful and are usually in groups.
- They burst and form shallow sores that look like little red craters in the skin.
- They last up to about 3 weeks and heal without leaving a scar.
Blisters and sores can also occur in the mouth – see below for the types of herpes virus that cause blisters on certain areas of the body.
- You may have flu-like symptoms of aches and pains and a mild fever.
- The glands may become enlarged and feel like tender lumps in the groin.
- You may have pain when you pass urine.
- Women may have a vaginal discharge that’s not like their usual discharge.
- Sometimes people don’t have crops of blisters, but one or 2 sore patches that disappear after a few days.
Compare these symptoms with those of syphilis, which are similar.
The blisters can then come back in future episodes, which last for 7-10 days and you don’t normally feel unwell at the time. An episode will start with a tingling or itching sensation in the genitals, and after that the blisters will appear.
What tests will the doctor do for genital herpes?
The doctor will want to look at the blisters if you have them when you see him/her. S/he may take a swab of the blisters to send to the lab for analysis.
You may also have a blood test for diagnosis also.
What is the treatment for genital herpes?
There is no cure for genital herpes but it can be managed.
Antiviral meds don’t clear the virus from the body but help to stop it multiplying, therefore reducing the length of time you have symptoms and their severity. It needs to be started within the 1st 5 days of symptoms and is taken for 5-7 days – see above for the warning signs.
Antivirals are acyclovir (brand name example Zovirax), famciclovir (Famvir) and valacyclovir (Valtrex).
Self-help treatments for managing the symptoms of genital herpes:
- Take painkillers (paracetamol, ibuprofen) regularly while you have the painful blisters
- Icepacks (ice wrapped in a towel) can be applied to the area for up to 10 minutes at a time, up to 4 times a day
- A warm bath may also help if you find it painful to pass urine – try passing urine in the bath or with warm water running over the genital area
- Used, cold teabags are also said to help
- Ask your doctor for anaesthetic cream that can be applied to the skin.
- Having sex until the blisters have completely healed
- Sharing towels or wash cloths etc
- Using scented soaps to wash the genitals
- Vigorous drying with a towel – blow dry the area with a hair dryer if that helps.
What causes genital herpes?
Genital herpes is caused by a virus called the herpes simplex virus (HSV).
There are 2 types of HSV:
- HSV1, which normally causes sores in the mouth or hands but also can cause genital herpes;
- and HSV2 which causes genital herpes.
Who gets genital herpes?
Men and women, gay and straight people can get genital herpes.
If you have blisters caused by HSV1 (see above) on your fingers, it is unlikely that you would give yourself genital herpes if you were to touch your genitals while you have an open sore.
However you can give someone else genital herpes if you have a mouth herpes sore and have oral sex with that person, or touch someone else’s genitals with an open herpes blister.
Pregnant women can pass the virus to their unborn babies, which can cause very serious infections. Fortunately this is rare.
What’s the outcome for people with genital herpes?
As there is no cure for the disease it’s important to self-manage the episodes (see above) and not to spread it to other partners.
How can I prevent genital herpes?
Many people have genital herpes but don’t know it. The only way to avoid any sexually transmitted infection is to abstain from sex or to stay in a mutually monogamous relationship – where you and your partner don’t have sex with anyone else.
Condoms can help protect you from herpes and other STIs but if a partner has blisters or sores on areas that are not covered by the condom, you are at risk of catching or transmitting the virus.
If you’re worried about your symptoms or medical problem but don’t want to seek professional help because you feel embarrassed, silly or that it’s your fault in some way, read this page now: How to talk to a doctor about an embarrassing problem.