What are Genital Herpes?

What are Genital Herpes?

Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by a virus known as herpes simplex (HSV). There are two subtypes of herpes; type 2 (HSV-2) which only affects the genital area and type 1 (HSV-1) which causes herpes on the mouth, but can also affect the genital area. Genital herpes can be passed on through having unprotected sex, touching genitals, sharing sex toys, or via oral sex (if someone has a cold sore on their mouth). Once you’ve been infected with genital herpes, symptoms can appear within 2-14 days. After that, the virus becomes dormant (inactive) and can flare up from time to time - known as recurrent outbreaks.

In 2019, Public Health England reported there were 34,570 first episode genital herpes cases reported in the UK, slowly increasing every year. Herpes simplex virus seems most prevalent in 25-34 years old, while new cases for 65+ years old have increased 17% between 2018-2019. 

Let’s find out more about genital herpes symptoms, treatment and testing of genital herpes as well as how to protect yourself from catching this common STI. 

What are the symptoms of genital herpes?

Symptoms of genital herpes can appear between 2-14 days of coming into contact with the virus, but sometimes, the herpes simplex virus lays dormant in the body for weeks, months or years before symptoms appear. You may generally feel unwell with flu-like symptoms, followed by;

  • Stinging, tingling or itching in the genital or anal area
  • Unusual discharge from the vagina
  • Small, fluid-filled blisters that burst within a day or two, leaving small, red sores which can be very painful around the genital, anal area, on the buttocks, or at the top of your thighs
  • Pain when passing urine.

Signs and symptoms of recurrent genital herpes outbreaks are generally milder than the first outbreak and clear up usually within a week.

What is the treatment for genital herpes?

Sometimes, those infected with genital herpes do not possess any symptoms, so treatment for genital herpes is not needed. However, for those that do have symptoms, there is no cure, only treatment to relieve the pain and to prevent the herpes simplex virus from spreading. 

First outbreak: 

  • Antiviral tablets taken 2-3 times a day for 5 days.
  • Cream to reduce the pain

Recurrent outbreaks:

  • Some people prefer to take antiviral tablets as soon as the genital herpes outbreak begins for 1-3 days as it can shorten the outbreak, but outbreaks usually settle by themselves, so some people prefer to manage the symptoms at home.
  • For those who have 5+ outbreaks a year may be given a longer course of medication to reduce the number of outbreaks.

Testing for genital herpes

In most cases, a doctor or nurse at your local sexual health clinic will diagnose genital herpes by looking at the infected area. A swab will be taken from the blisters or sores to be sent away for testing for verification but if herpes simplex is suspected, the nurses and doctors may start you on treatment straight away.  

How can I prevent myself from catching STI’s? 

Condoms! Condoms reduce the risk of catching sexually transmitted infections by preventing any sexual fluids from being transferred. By using a condom (or dam) every time you have vaginal, anal or oral sex reduces the risk of contracting an STI. We have a wide variety of condoms available from regular, king, super king or trim as well as flavoured and fun condoms so there’s plenty of variety available. Unsure which condom to choose? Open this link 'in a new window' here What type of condom should I buy?

As well as ensuring you or your partner wear condoms, getting a sexual health screen on a regular basis (we recommend annually or on change of a sexual partner) will help reduce the risk of catching and passing the infection on. 

To find out more about herpes, go to NHS UK 

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