What Is Genital Herpes? Symptoms, Treatment & More

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What is genital herpes?

Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) that causes blisters and sores around the genitals.

It is caused by a virus called the herpes simplex virus (HSV). There are many herpes viruses and these variations also cause chickenpox, shingles and cold sores.

Genital herpes is very common, and it is estimated that around 4 billion people worldwide have some form of the virus. With symptoms often being painful, herpes can be distressing, having an impact on quality of life and sexual relationships. 

Whilst herpes cannot be cured, symptoms can be managed using genital herpes treatment.

 

Types of genital herpes

There are two different types of HSV. Herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) is the same type of virus that leads to cold sores on and around the mouth. 

Herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2) more commonly affects the genitals, but it is possible for HSV-1 to also affect the genital region.

 

Herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1)

HSV-1 is commonly referred to as oral herpes because it causes cold sores to form around the mouth. Many people develop this type of herpes in childhood from non-sexual contact, for example, kissing family members on the mouth.

Most people do not experience symptoms regularly, with flare ups commonly occurring when the immune system is low. Some people will carry the virus but never experience symptoms at all. 

While HSV-1 usually affects the mouth, it can spread from the mouth to the genitals via oral sex. This is why you may receive an HSV-1 diagnosis if you have a herpes outbreak around the genitals.

 

Herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2)

HSV-2 is the most common cause of genital herpes. It is a life-long infection and does not have a cure, but only causes symptoms during outbreaks.

HSV-2 is almost always sexually transmitted. There is no way to distinguish between HSV-1 and HSV-2 from the appearance of symptoms. A herpes test is required to tell the difference. 

How do you catch genital herpes

Genital herpes is contracted through sexual activity, including:

  • Vaginal sex
  • Anal sex
  • Oral sex
  • Any other skin-to-skin contact of the genital or anal area

 

Genital herpes can be transmitted even if the skin looks “normal,” i.e. there are no visible sores or blisters.

Using condoms or other forms of barrier protection will not always prevent infection, since the virus can live on parts of the skin that the condom does not cover. However, such precautionary measures work to reduce the risk of transmission. 

 

Can you get genital herpes from oral sex

Yes, some cases of genital herpes are due to an HSV-1 infection, the type of herpes virus that usually causes cold sores. In these cases, genital herpes can develop after oral sex when a person has the HSV-1 virus, particularly if they have active cold sores.

 

Can you get genital herpes without having sex

Whilst sex is the most common way people develop genital herpes, you can also get herpes from:

  • Touching, even by transmitting the virus from fingers to the genitals
  • Sharing sex toys

 

You cannot get genital herpes from:

  • Swimming pools or saunas
  • Sharing towels
  • Toilet seats
  • Kissing

 

In rare instances, HSV-2 can be transmitted from a mother to a baby during childbirth. See the section on genital herpes and pregnancy below.

 

How common is genital herpes

In a study of both the US and UK populations, up to 23% of adults had antibodies for HSV-2. This means that roughly 1 in 4 adults carry the genital herpes virus. 

Later research found that up to 70% of people in the UK had either HSV-1 or HSV-2 by the time they turned 25. Many of these cases were oral herpes (the type that causes cold sores), which can also be transmitted to the genitals.

There were a total of 30,658 cases of genital herpes diagnosed in sexual health clinics in 2015 in England alone. Of these:

  • 41% were people aged 15–24 years
  • 92% were heterosexual people

 

What does genital herpes look like

At first, genital herpes will look like tiny red bumps or blisters. These eventually fill with liquid and turn yellow or clear. When the blisters burst, they can leave open sores.

The extent of the rash and the number of blisters can vary, depending on the individual. Some people may only have one blister or a small cluster, while others may have blisters that cover a larger area.

Genital herpes blisters can appear on the:

  • Genitals, including the vulva, labia or penis
  • Anal area
  • Thighs
  • Buttocks

 

To see pictures of genital herpes, visit the NHS website.

 

Genital herpes symptoms

Many genital herpes infections are asymptomatic, meaning people do not experience any symptoms. However, depending on the individual, symptoms can vary from mild to severe.

A genital herpes outbreak can cause the following symptoms:

  • Painful, fluid-filled blisters
  • Long-lasting sores once the blisters break open
  • Tingling or shooting pains

 

The first outbreak is usually longer and more severe than later outbreaks. During the first outbreak, people can also experience: 

  • A fever
  • General achiness
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Headaches

 

While genital herpes can be painful, many people only have mild symptoms. Many at-home treatments can help reduce pain and discomfort.

 

Symptoms in men vs women

Genital herpes is more common in women than in men due to the fact that the virus transmits more easily to women. 

Symptoms are the same in both sexes. Women with genital herpes may need to take extra precautions during pregnancy and childbirth to prevent transmitting herpes to the baby.

 

Genital herpes diagnosis

 

If you think you have genital herpes, go to a sexual health clinic, speak to your GP or order a herpes home test kit.

A sexual health clinic will be able to carry out a swab test for analysis in the lab, whilst your GP may be able to provide a diagnosis from the appearance of blisters. Herpes home test kits usually come with full instructions on how to swab the blisters and send the sample to the laboratory in the envelope provided. Results usually take 3-5 days.

 

How long does it take genital herpes to show up?

It is important to note that you can develop a genital herpes outbreak even if you have not had sex for a long time. The virus can lay dormant until the outbreak occurs, which can take days, months or even years. 

This can make it difficult to pinpoint where the virus came from or when the infection first started.

Some people find that certain things trigger outbreaks. These triggers include:

  • A weak immune system: If you have recently recovered from an illness, like a cold, or are taking immunosuppressant medications, a herpes outbreak may be more likely
  • Stress: Some people report genital herpes outbreaks during times of physical or psychological stress
  • Hormonal fluctuations: Changes in hormone levels during menstruation, pregnancy or perimenopause can sometimes trigger an outbreak 
  • Irritants: Friction from clothing or sex, or even sun exposure can sometimes irritate the skin and lead to an outbreak

 

Genital herpes and pregnancy

For women who acquire genital herpes during pregnancy, there is a risk that the baby could develop an illness called neonatal herpes. Most babies recover by receiving antiviral treatment in the hospital, but it can cause serious complications. 

Women who already had herpes before pregnancy do not usually have the same level of risk and can expect to have a normal birth. Some women with herpes are offered a caesarean birth, but this will depend on the individual’s circumstances. 

A doctor might offer extra antiviral treatment during pregnancy if you:

  • Have herpes outbreaks in pregnancy
  • Need to reduce the chance of an outbreak happening around the same time as childbirth
  • First get genital herpes during pregnancy

 

Genital warts vs herpes

It is easy to confuse genital herpes with other STI's, such as genital warts. This is why a confirmed diagnosis, either in a clinic or using a herpes home test kit, is essential.

Genital warts and genital herpes are both STIs and spread in similar ways. However, the viruses that cause these infections are different:

  • Herpes simplex virus (HSV-1 or HSV-2) causes genital herpes
  • Human papillomavirus (HPV) causes genital warts

 

Genital warts differ in appearance to genital herpes. They are not fluid-filled and do not cause the same type of nerve pain that a herpes outbreak does. Genital warts are similar in nature to skin tags. 

 

How to cure genital herpes

Unfortunately, there is no cure for genital herpes. People with a herpes infection may have recurrent outbreaks throughout their life.

Unlike bacterial infections that can be eliminated with antibiotics, genital herpes is a viral infection. When the herpes virus enters the body, it can lie dormant in the nerve cells until something triggers an outbreak.

This is similar to other types of herpes. For example, people can go months or even years without having cold sores.

 

How to treat genital herpes

The first time you have a genital herpes outbreak, a doctor may prescribe antiviral medication. Popular antiviral medication in the UK include:

 

  • Valaciclovir tablets: Valaciclovir is another antiviral medication that can help suppress outbreaks and ease painful symptoms. Valaciclovir is similar to aciclovir. It is also available as a branded product called Valtrex
  • Valtrex tablets: Valtrex is the brand name of a version of valaciclovir. It acts in the same way

 

Antiviral tablets can help reduce the length of an outbreak by 1 or 2 days if you start taking them at the start of an outbreak. 

For pain relief, you can also:

  • Ask for a cream for the nerve pain
  • Wrap an ice pack in a cloth to form a cold compress and apply it to the area
  • Apply petroleum jelly (Vaseline) to ease pain
  • Avoid wearing tight clothing
  • Avoid touching the blisters unless applying a cream or cold compress

 

Later outbreaks tend to be less severe and may not happen as often. Sometimes, you may not even require antiviral treatment if the symptoms are manageable with home remedies alone. 

Take a look at our guide on the ‘Best Genital Herpes Treatments’ for more information.

 

Living with genital herpes

You may well become familiar with the initial symptoms that occur before an outbreak. These include tingling nerves and some localised pain around the genitals. 

There are measure you can take to help ease symptoms. These include:

  • Taking antiviral medication as soon as possible to shorten the duration and severity of the outbreak
  • Wearing loose, breathable clothing
  • Keeping the area clean and dry (but avoid scrubbing)
  • Avoiding sex for the duration of the outbreak

 

Anyone experiencing frequent outbreaks should speak to a doctor about taking a course of antiviral medication for 6 to 12 months to try to suppress the virus. The aim is to prevent the number of outbreaks that occur. 

 

Genital herpes prevention

It is nearly impossible to completely prevent getting genital herpes, aside from avoiding sex.

People who know they have genital herpes can abstain from having sex while they are experiencing an outbreak, since this is when the virus is most contagious. However, it can still be transmitted even if symptoms are not present. Many people do not even know they have it.

Using condoms can help reduce the risk, but do not guarantee full protection, since the virus can live on parts of the skin the condom does not cover.

Pregnant women with genital herpes should let their doctor know as soon as possible. Preventing outbreaks and transmission during pregnancy is particularly important to reduce the risk of neonatal herpes. 

Researchers are working on new and effective ways to prevent genital herpes, such as vaccines. Until then, herpes treatments are available to ease symptoms and aid recovery.

Chemist Click offers a range of effective genital herpes treatments. After reading this article, if you are concerned that you might have genital herpes, it would be best to refrain from sexual activity and take a herpes home test as soon as possible.

If you can’t find what you’re looking for in this article, take a look at our genital herpes FAQs


Whilst all of our content is written and reviewed by healthcare professionals, it is not intended to be substituted for or used as medical advice. If you have any questions or concerns about your health, please speak to your doctor.