How to say:
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
- Type 2 is more likely to cause herpes on the
genitals, such as blisters on the penis or vulva (entrance to the
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
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
- 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
- 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.
Some people suffer recurrent
episodes possibly triggered by:
- friction in your genital area, such as during sexual
- 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.
The first occurrence of genital
herpes is called the initial or primary infection. You may
experience a range of symptoms during the primary infection,
- 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
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.
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
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
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
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
- 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
- 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
- Avoid using scented soaps, shower gels, or bubble
- 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 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; www.herpes.org.uk) has helpful
advice on how you might talk to a sexual partner about herpes as
well as other useful tips on living with herpes.