The Oldest Profession

Genital herpes


What is it?

Genital herpes is a common sexually transmitted infection. It's caused by a virus called herpes simplex (HSV). There are two types, HSV I and HSV II - both can infect the genital and anal area (genital herpes), the mouth and nose (cold sores), fingers and hand (whitlows). This information is about genital herpes.

How's it transmitted?

The virus enters the body through small cracks in the skin or through the moist soft lining (mucous membranes) of the mouth, vagina, rectum and urethra.

It may cause an outbreak of genital herpes or become dormant (inactive) and hide around the nerves in the body where you were infected. It can be dormant for long periods, and during this time it's not infectious.

Some people can shed the virus from their skin or mucous membranes without any symptoms of genital herpes. This is called asymptomatic or viral shedding. It's possible to pass the virus during this time, but for most people the risk is low.

What are the symptoms?

Male herpes symptoms

Female herpes symptoms

Many people don't have any visible signs or symptoms, or are unaware of them. Symptoms can occur within four to five days of coming into contact with the virus, but it can be weeks, months or even years before they appear. This means that when symptoms occur, it doesn’t necessarily mean you've recently come into contact with the virus.

If you get symptoms, they usually follow a pattern. You may have some or all of the following:

  • Feeling generally unwell, with flu-like symptoms such as fever, tiredness, headache, swollen glands, aches and pains in the lower back, down the legs or in the groin
  • Stinging, tingling or itching in the genital or anal area
  • Small, fluid-filled blisters anywhere in the genital or anal area, on the buttocks and tops of the thighs; these burst within a day or two leaving small red sores, which can be very painful
  • Pain when urinating (caused by urine touching the sores)

The first episode of genital herpes is often the most painful. Recurrent episodes are usually milder and clear up more quickly.

What's the treatment?

If you think you have herpes, get tested as soon as you have any symptoms. Tests are free on the NHS from genitourinary medicine clinics, sexual health clinics or from your GP. There's no routine test for genital herpes if you don't have any symptoms.

A test involves a general examination of the genital area to look at any blisters or sores. To confirm you have herpes, a swab (like a cotton bud) is used to take a sample of cells from the blister. They may have to gently break a blister to get a sample of the fluid inside.

Treatment's usually recommended for a first episode, aiming to relieve pain and prevent the virus from spreading. It involves taking antiviral tablets daily for five days and should be taken within five days of the first episode.

If you're pregnant or trying to get pregnant, tell the doctor or nurse so they can talk to you about pregnancy and herpes.

Over-the-counter treatments for cold sores from a pharmacy will not treat genital herpes.

Self-help treatments can relieve pain or discomfort and may speed up healing. They include:

  • Applying an ice pack to the sores for an hour or so (but don’t put unwrapped ice directly on your skin)
  • Putting cold, wet tea bags on the sores
  • Having cool showers
  • Applying local anaesthetic ointment, such as lidocaine
  • Bathing in warm, salted water
  • Drinking lots of fluids, especially water or soft drinks
  • Wearing loose clothing

What happens if genital herpes isn't treated?

It isn't essential to have treatment as flare-ups will clear by themselves, but treatment can help speed up the healing process.

Advice and support

Go to your GP, a genitourinary medicine clinic or a sexual health clinic. All services are confidential.

You can call fpa's helpline on 0845 122 8690 or the Herpes Viruses Association on 0845 123 2305.

Article originally published by the BBC based on information from the FPA