Genital Herpes

How to say: Jen-i-tl hur-peez

What is it?

Genital Herpes is a sexually transmitted infection (STI). It is passed on from one person to another during intimate sexual contact. Both men and women can have genital herpes. It is caused by the virus herpes simplex (HSV), which also causes herpes on the face (in the form of cold sores).

There are two types of the herpes simplex virus, type 1 (HSV-1) and type 2 (HSV-2).

  • Type 1 is more likely to cause herpes on the face, such as cold sores
  • Type 2 is more likely to cause herpes on the genitals, such as blisters on the penis or vulva (entrance to the vagina).

Around 80% of people with genital herpes never know that they are carrying the virus because there are often no symptoms.

This means that many cases of herpes go undiagnosed. However, even with no symptoms, it is possible to pass genital herpes on to a sexual partner because the virus may sometimes be present in your genital area.

The virus enters the body through small cracks in the skin or through the moist soft lining (mucous membranes) of the mouth, vagina, anus (back passage) and urethra (tube that carries urine from the bladder to the tip of the penis).

The virus then becomes dormant (inactive) and hides around the nerves in the part of the body where you were infected. This can be for long periods of time. During this time it is not infectious and does not cause signs or symptoms. In some people the virus can become active again from time to time and cause further episodes of genital herpes – known as recurrent episodes.

How do you get it?

The herpes virus is most likely to be passed on just before, during and straight after an episode.

You can catch herpes through having:

  • unprotected vaginal and anal sex
  • unprotected oral sex from someone who has a cold sore or is just about to get one
  • genital contact with an infected partner (you don’t need to have penetrative sex to pass it on)
  • sharing vibrators or other sex toys, that have not been washed or covered with a condom

You can pass the infection if a person who has herpes on the hand or finger touches the vagina, genitals or anal area.

If you already have one type of the virus it is still possible for you to get the other type although you may not notice symptoms.

You cannot get herpes from:

  • huggingsharing cups, plates and cutlery.
  • Herpes cannot survive outside the body for long, so you cannot catch it from a toilet seat or other shared facilities, such as baths, swimming pools or saunas.
  • Genital herpes can be passed from a mother to her baby during childbirth if she is having an outbreak.

Recurrent episodes

Some people suffer recurrent episodes possibly triggered by:

  • friction in your genital area, such as during sexual intercourse
  • being 'run down',
  • long periods of stress,
  • having your period,
  • tight clothing and underwear, and
  • exposure of your genital area to strong sunlight.

Signs and Symptoms

Many people who have genital herpes do not experience any symptoms, but if you do, they will usually begin between two and seven days after exposure to the virus. However, it is important to note that symptoms occasionally do not appear until months, or sometimes years, after being exposed to the virus.

Primary infection

The first occurrence of genital herpes is called the initial or primary infection. You may experience a range of symptoms during the primary infection, including:

  • mild fever
  • aches and pains
  • swollen glands (at the top of your legs)
  • generally feeling unwell
  • itching or burning sensation in your genital area

These symptoms may last for up to 21 days.

Painful red spots may appear around your genitals which gradually turn into fluid-filled blisters. These blisters will then burst, leaving painful ulcers. However, the ulcers will eventually dry out and heal, after about 10-14 days, and should not scar. These symptoms can vary from person to person. For example, you may not experience the blisters, but only have ulcers which appear to be small cuts or cracks in your skin.

For women, genital herpes usually affects the vulva (the entrance to the vagina), and sometimes the cervix (neck of the womb). Women may also experience vaginal discharge.

For men, the affected area is mainly the end and shaft of the penis, the foreskin, and sometimes the testicles. It is also possible, though less common, to have sores on the buttocks, anus (back passage) and top of the thighs.

Recurrent episodes

Once the primary infection is over, the symptoms will have gone, but the virus will still be present in a nearby nerve. The virus can be 'reactivated' in some people, and travel back down the nerve to the skin. This is called recurrence.

When herpes recurs, the symptoms are usually milder and last for a shorter period of time, usually three to five days. This is because your body has already produced a defence and can therefore now fight the virus more effectively.

Recurrences vary greatly from person to person - some may not experience them at all, and some may have six or more a year. Early indications of a recurrence can include feeling an itching, or tingling, sensation around your genitals for 12-24 hours.

Genital herpes does not affect fertility in men or women.

Genital herpes is not associated with cervical cancer.


The herpes virus can cause problems during pregnancy. If you develop herpes for the first time during pregnancy, or suffer with genital herpes and are pregnant or intending to become pregnant it is very important you speak to your GP or get further advice from a sexual health clinic.

Testing for genital Herpes

If you think that you may have genital herpes, you should see your GP as soon as possible. This is because a diagnosis is made more easily and accurately when the infection is still present.

Remember that testing and treatment of infections is free of charge, and all advice and information is completely confidential.

The doctor will give you a physical examination and may suspect genital herpes just by looking at the infected area. They will want to confirm this by taking a swab of fluid from the infected area, if they can.

Cervical smear tests and routine blood tests do not detect the herpes simplex virus.


The aim of the treatment is to relieve the pain, and to prevent the virus from multiplying.

  • Painkillers, such as paracetamol, can help to relieve the pain.
  • Anaesthetic ointment can be applied to the sores to ease the pain and itching. These ointments, such as lidocaine, are available over-the-counter (OTC) from you local pharmacy.
  • Always wash your hands before touching the sores to avoid passing on any bacteria to the infected area.
  • Peeing can be painful, especially for women, so it may be a good idea to apply anaesthetic ointment (see above) around five minutes before peeing.  Also try passing urine while sitting in a warm bath. Drinking more water, rather than less, will also help to dilute your urine and therefore help to ease the discomfort when you go to the toilet.
  • Keep the infected area as cool as possible by wearing loose cotton underwear.
  • An icepack, wrapped in a clean tea towel and held against the area for a few minutes, can also help to soothe the sores. Ice should not be put directly onto the skin. Some people also find placing cold used tea-bags on the sores helps to ease the pain.
  • Avoid using scented soaps, shower gels, or bubble bath.
  • Gently clean the area with warm water, and dry it carefully by gently dabbing it with a towel. You can also use a hairdryer on the lowest setting to dry yourself if a towel feels too painful.
  • After the infection has cleared use a lubricant during sex to help reduce the friction.
  • As genital herpes is caused by a virus and not bacteria, antibiotics will not help.
  • The treatment you can buy for facial cold sores is not suitable for genital herpes.

Antiviral medication

Antiviral medication is available on prescription from your GP and is most effective during the initial (or primary) genital herpes infection.

For most people recurrent episodes are very mild and therefore antiviral medication is not needed. However, if you do have frequent or severe recurring infections, your GP may prescribe a daily tablet to help reduce the symptoms and prevent the infections re-occurring.

It is recommended that you avoid sex if you know an outbreak is coming, while you have signs and symptoms, and for a week after the symptoms have gone. Having sex while you have blisters or sores can delay the healing process.

If you have had more than one sexual partner it can be difficult to know which partner you got genital herpes from. The genital herpes check-up cannot tell you how long the infection has been there. If you feel upset or angry about having genital herpes and find it difficult to talk to your partner or friends, don’t be afraid to discuss how you feel with the staff at the sexual health service.

If the check-up shows that you have genital herpes then it is not usually recommended that your partner has a check-up unless they have signs or symptoms. The doctor or nurse will talk to you about whether or not it may be helpful to tell your sexual partner(s) and how to do this. The Herpes Viruses Association (Tel: 0845 123 2305; has helpful advice on how you might talk to a sexual partner about herpes as well as other useful tips on living with herpes.

Where can I get tested?

You could see your own GP, or you can visit any of the following. Remember services vary so always check before you attend.

  • community sexual health clinics
  • sexual health clinics in your local hospital
  • young people's clinics 

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