Genital Herpes is a common infection caused by the Herpes Simplex Virus  (HSV) There are two types HSV 1 and HSV 2. Both HSV 1 and HSV 2 can infect the genital and anal area and also the mouth and nose (cold sores) Both types are highly contagious and can be passed easily from one person to another through direct contact.  HSV is a long-term condition which can be treated but not cured.

Signs and symptoms

Many people who have the herpes virus may not even realise because they may not get any visible signs or symptoms. If you do get symptoms they may include the following:

  • Small fluid-filled blisters that burst to leave red open sores around your genitals, anus, thighs and buttocks.
  • Pain when you pass urine -due to the urine passing over sores.
  • A general feeling of being unwell, with aches, pains and flu-like symptoms.
  • Stinging, tingling or itching in the genital or anal area.
  • May have vaginal or urethral discharge.

These symptoms may last up to 20 days. However, the sores will eventually scab over and heal.

Although the initial symptoms of genital herpes clear up, the virus remain dormant (inactive) in a nearby nerve. The virus may reactivate from time to time, traveling back down the nerve to your skin and causing recurrent outbreaks. The outbreaks that follow are usually less severe and heal more quickly because your body has produced protective antibodies in reaction to the previous infection. Your body now mounts a response that is able to fight HSV more effectively.

Some people find that certain things can trigger an outbreak, such as:

  • Stress.
  • Being run down or unwell.
  • Sunbathing.
  • Certain times in your menstrual cycle.
  • Drinking alcohol and smoking too much.
  • Friction from sex or masturbation.

If you are experiencing recurrent outbreaks of genital herpes you should also consider getting tested for HIV. This may be a sign of weakened immune system, which may indicate you have HIV.

If you have HIV and genital herpes you will be referred to a specialist. This is because genital herpes is a more serious condition in people with HIV.

Causes of genital herpes

The virus is highly contagious and spreads from one person to another through skin-to-skin contact, such as during vaginal, anal or oral sex.  Whenever HSV is on the surface of your skin it can be passed onto a partner. The virus passes easily through the moist skin that lines your genitals, mouth and anus.

It is passed on during sexual contact and is most likely to be passed on before, during and immediately after an outbreak. It is more easy to catch when the infected person has blisters or sores. However, it can be caught at anytime, even when someone has no symptoms at all. This is called asymptomatic shedding.

It can be passed on from one person to another through:

  • Unprotected vaginal sex.
  • Unprotected anal sex.
  • Unprotected oral sex.
  • If you receive oral sex from someone who has a cold sore or is about to get one.
  • Your genital coming into contact with your partners.
  • Skin-to-skin contact  during sex if the virus is active on the skin outside the area protected by a condom.
  • Sharing sex toys without washing them or covering them with a condom with each use.
  • if a person has whitlows (herpes on the hand) touches a partners vaginal, genitals or anal area.

Testing for genital herpes

You can only have a check up for herpes when you have signs and symptoms. If you think you have genital herpes for the first time you should visit your local sexual health clinic as soon as possible.

The doctor or nurse will look at the affected area and take a swab of fluid from the blisters. The sample will then be sent to the laboratory to be tested for HSV and you will normally get the results back in one to two weeks.

Treatment for genital herpes

The herpes virus stays in your body for life but antiviral tablets stop blisters or make them heal quicker, and they can be used long-term to prevent symptoms.

If blisters appear, pain-killing creams,and bathing in salt water may help.

How to avoid infection

1. Male condoms and femidoms (female condoms) reduce the risk of getting or passing on herpes if they cover the affected area.

2. Wash hands after touching blisters, especially before handling contact lenses, because herpes can cause an eye infection

3. Avoid things that trigger herpes outbreaks such as lack of sleep, being unwell, sunbathing or stress.

Having herpes could make it easier for someone to get or pass on HIV. But if HIV drugs have made your viral load undetectable then herpes or other infections don't appear to make you more likely to pass on HIV.