Before we start to explore genital herpes, it’s important to understand herpes in general. Herpes is caused by a virus known as the herpes simplex virus. Herpes simplex is categorised into two types, HSV-1 and HSV-2.
What is the difference between HSV-1 and HSV-2?
The main difference between HSV-1 and HSV-2 is the location in which they appear on the body. A majority of HSV-1 infections are oral herpes, transmitted through oral to oral contact. They mainly appear as blisters or lesions on the side of the mouth, known as cold sores. However, it is still possible to transmit the HSV-1 virus through oral sex, causing genital herpes or oral herpes (depending on who is carrying the infection).
HSV-2 is almost exclusively spread through sexual contact. The infection occurs in the genital region, causing blisters or sores to appear, known as genital herpes.
What are the symptoms of genital herpes?
- Small blisters around the genital, anus, thigh or buttock area that burst, leaving open sores that are usually red
- Burning, itching or a tingling sensation around your genitals
- Pain on urination
- Vaginal discharge that is unusual
Not everyone has the same symptoms. In fact, some people who have the herpes virus may never have a single attack (although they are still able to pass the infection on). However, it is more likely for herpes to be transmitted when active, usually at the start or end of an outbreak.
When and how should I get tested for genital herpes?
You should get tested for genital herpes as soon as you develop symptoms. You can get tested at your local GUM clinic or order a test kit from a reputable online source. The test involves swabbing a lesion, which is then analysed in a laboratory, so for the most accurate result, you should swab an oozing lesion. There is no routine test for those that do not display any signs or symptoms.
When do the symptoms of genital herpes appear?
Most people who have contracted genital herpes for the first time, experience symptoms within 1-2 weeks. This is known as the incubation period where the virus is multiplying inside your body until the point where it causes an outbreak. Re-infections can occur at any time, usually appearing after an episode of trauma or when the immune system is compromised, for example, after a cold.
How long do the symptoms of genital herpes last for?
The first outbreak of herpes is usually the most severe, lasting around 2-3 weeks. After this, outbreaks usually last for around a week, depending on when you started anti-viral treatment. Before an outbreak, you may notice a sensation of tingling, burning or itching around the genital region. This is usually a sign of an outbreak and the best time to start treatment, ideally before blisters begin to appear.
How often do genital herpes outbreaks occur?
Outbreaks of genital herpes vary, depending on the person. Whilst some people will never, or very rarely experience outbreaks, others will experience outbreaks of genital herpes several times a year. It is important to keep yourself healthy, as a strong immune system can help to suppress the herpes simplex virus.
Is herpes simplex curable?
There is no cure for herpes, but certain anti-viral treatments such as aciclovir and valaciclovir can relieve the symptoms of genital herpes. According to WHO (World Health Organization), herpes simplex affects over 4 billion people worldwide. It is a common condition that many of us live a normal healthy life with.
When can I have sex again after a genital herpes outbreak?
To avoid spreading the virus, you should wait until the symptoms of herpes have cleared up, as this is when you are most contagious. Even after symptoms have cleared up, it is advisable to use a condom, as herpes can be spread even when symptoms are not present.