Genital herpes

Genital herpes is an infection caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). 

There are two types of HSV:

  • type 1 can cause both cold sores and genital herpes
  • type 2 only causes genital herpes. 

Both types are very common.

Symptoms

The first thing you may notice is some tingling in the genital area. Then you could develop small painful blisters. These blisters will break and form ulcers; these will slowly dry up and heal over 5 to 10 days.

The first time they get the sores, some people may also feel quite sick with headaches, backache and swollen glands in the groin. 

Other problems it can cause

Like cold sores, genital herpes can come back again and again. It affects everyone differently. In some people it may come back quite often particularly if they are stressed, tired or ill and can be very painful. 

Other people may have mild symptoms or never have symptoms or blisters again.

Women with a history of genital herpes who are pregnant should tell their doctor. 

If herpes sores are present around the time of delivery usually a caesarean section will be offered to try to prevent the baby being infected. 

Neonatal herpes (herpes affecting the baby) is a rare, but very serious condition.

Having herpes sores can make it easier for a person to become infected with HIV or to pass HIV on to someone else.

Catching genital herpes

The virus is transmitted by skin to skin contact – such as during sex. 

Because there is more virus around when people have sores, herpes is most likely to be spread then, however people with herpes but without blisters can still pass herpes on.

Most people infected with herpes do not know it. 

They either do not have any symptoms, or do not recognise the symptoms. They are still able to pass it on to their sex partners.

Using a condom is an important way of preventing infection, however, condoms do not provide 100% protection.

Tests

A swab is taken from a sore to look for the virus.

Treatment

There is no cure for genital herpes but medication can reduce the frequency and severity of symptoms.

Medication is important for people who have genital herpes for the first time to reduce the severity and prevent complications such as urinary retention and severe headache.

Some people who have recurrent genital herpes benefit from taking medication to decrease the severity and length of symptoms, provided they are taken early enough, usually before the sores appear.

If people are experiencing frequent episodes of painful blisters, they can take medication every day to try and prevent the sores coming back.

Unfortunately, there is no cure for herpes, treatment is aimed at relieving symptoms and improving quality of life. 

You can get accurate information and counselling from the Centre for Disease Control's Clinic 34.

Last updated: 27 June 2017