Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted infection (STI), caused by a virus called herpes simplex virus (HSV). There are two slightly different types of the virus, both of which can affect the genitals. One of the types is exactly the same virus that causes cold sores around the mouth.
Genital herpes causes painful blisters and sores on and around the genitals. It can also sometimes cause problems if it is caught for the first time either very early or very late in pregnancy.
The herpes virus (HSV) is highly contagious and it can be easily passed from person to person by close, direct contact including kissing, vaginal and anal sex (genital contact), oral sex (mouth to genital contact) and sharing sex toys.
Many people who have and pass on the virus may not even know they have herpes as it is possible to carry the virus without having any symptoms.
Sometimes you can catch herpes when your sexual partner has no visible sores or symptoms. This is because the virus can become active on the skin without causing any visible blisters or sores.
Many people with the herpes virus do not experience any symptoms when they are first infected and, as a result, do not know that they have it.
If you do experience symptoms it usually takes between two and twelve days after contact with the virus for the first symptoms of genital herpes to appear. Although sometimes symptoms may not appear until months, or sometimes years, after you have been infected.
Once you have picked up the infection, the virus stays in your body. It can lie dormant for long periods, but can reactivate in the area that was originally infected. If the virus reactivates, the sores and blisters can reappear. This is known as a ‘recurrent episode’ of genital herpes.
This first episode of genital herpes may last from two to four weeks. Repeated episodes are not usually as severe as the first and you may never have a repeat episode.
If you have a recurrent infection, your symptoms may include:
If you think you or your partner may be infected with genital herpes, you should get tested.
The genital herpes test is simple and straightforward. If you or your partner are worried that you may have genital herpes, see a doctor or visit your local sexual health service. If you are pregnant and find out you have a genital herpes infection, tell your midwife as soon as possible.
Herpes testing can be done by your GP or a sexual health service. Find your nearest sexual health service here.
Knowing that you have a herpes diagnosis will mean that you should take extra precautions to avoid passing it on to anyone else.
If there are symptoms present (blisters, sores and ulcers), the doctor or nurse may be able to make a diagnosis straight away.
If you have visible blisters, the doctor or nurse may take a swab for testing, or take a blood or urine sample.
A swab looks a bit like a cotton bud and collecting a sample only takes a few minutes. It is not painful, although it may be a little uncomfortable for a moment.
You may also be offered tests for other sexually transmitted infections.
Although there is no known cure for herpes, the symptoms of genital herpes can be treated and there are some things you can do to help prevent symptoms coming back.
Once you have been infected with genital herpes, the virus stays in your body and can cause symptoms to reappear from time to time.
Recurrent episodes of genital herpes with symptoms will clear up by themselves without any treatment, but there is also medication to help speed up the healing process. You should, however, always visit your GP or sexual health service to be sure that it is the herpes virus that is causing your symptoms.
The doctor may prescribe antiviral tablets to speed up the healing process and reduce the severity of an episode. If you start taking the medication as soon as an outbreak begins, you may shorten or even stop the episode.
Some people experience frequent recurrences of genital herpes. In these cases, a longer course of tablets should prevent any recurrent episodes. Talk to your doctor or nurse at the sexual health service, or to your GP about possible treatment options that may suit you.
Always use a condom to protect against genital herpes - the herpes virus can’t pass through a condom. However, if the virus is present and active on the skin in areas around the genitals not covered by the condom (as is often the case), infection may still occur. Therefore condoms are not 100% protective against the herpes virus.
You can try out safer sex alternatives
Keep a record of when you have an episode of genital herpes. You may see a pattern developing, and be able to identify your trigger factors.
Many people find that episodes occur when they’re run-down, under stress, around the time of menstruation, or when the skin gets irritated due to friction or tight clothing. If you do see a pattern of trigger factors, try to adjust your lifestyle to avoid or reduce your exposure to them.
If you have herpes, you can follow some simple guidelines to avoid passing the virus on to your partner(s), and to continue to have a healthy and happy sex life:
If you have frequent episodes of herpes then it is worth talking to your GP or sexual health clinic about longer term treatment which may also reduce the chance of you passing on the virus to your partner.