Genital herpes is caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). The herpes virus can be passed on by having unprotected vaginal, anal or oral sex, sharing sex toys, and skin-to-skin contact. Although the symptoms of genital herpes will clear up by themselves, severe outbreaks can be treated with antiviral tablets.
- What is it?
The herpes simplex virus (HSV for short) causes genital herpes. Both types (HSV 1 and 2) infect the genital and anal area, the fingers and hands (whitlows) and the mouth and nose (cold sores).
- How do I catch it?
The herpes virus can get into the body through small cracks in the skin or lining of the mouth, the tube where the urine comes out (urethra), under the foreskin or the vagina.
Having unprotected oral, anal or vaginal sex, sharing sex toys and skin-to-skin contact can all cause the transmission of herpes.
If you are pregnant and you have an outbreak of herpes, the virus could be passed on to the baby. If you know that you have herpes or you catch herpes during pregnancy, you should let your midwife know.
- What symptoms could I have?
When some people catch the herpes virus, they will experience a genital herpes outbreak. You might notice this days, weeks or months later.
Symptoms to look out for include flu-like symptoms, as well as tingling, itching or stinging in the genital or anal area. You might see small, fluid filled blisters. These burst to become painful ulcers. Passing urine might also cause you pain.
These symptoms usually disappear without any treatment. The herpes virus then remains in the body, but it is inactive. The virus could occasionally become active again, causing further genital herpes outbreaks. This is called recurrent herpes.
Some people might contract herpes and never display any symptoms.
- How do you test for it?
A swab is taken from the skin where a blister or ulcer is in order to test for genital herpes. You will get the results back within two weeks. If you have no obvious blisters or ulcers, there is no routine test for herpes.
You can use the service finder to find a testing service near you.
- How do you treat it?
If you have a severe outbreak of genital herpes, it can be treated with antiviral tablets as these will help to speed up the healing process and ease the pain. Otherwise, the symptoms should disappear by themselves.
Other things you can do to ease the pain are:
- Gently bathe the area with diluted salt water.
- Apply local anaesthetic cream. It is important that you don’t use any other lotions, ointments or creams unless they are prescribed.
- Pass urine in a warm bath if it’s really painful.
- Take a cool shower.