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Genital herpes

What is it?

Genital Herpes is a viral infection affecting the skin.

There are two types of herpes simplex virus:

  • Type 1 Virus is usually the cause of “cold sores” affecting the mouth and nose but can also be the cause of genital sores as it is easily passed to the genital area via oral sex.
  • Type 2 Virus Usually affects the genital and anal areas.

How is it passed on?

It is difficult to avoid coming into contact with the herpes virus. The majority of the population will come into contact with one of the herpes viruses at some time in their lives.

Many people who have herpes will never know they have the infection as they never experience any symptoms.

Herpes is passed from one person to another by

  • Skin-to-skin contact during sex if the virus is active on the skin outside the area protected by a condom
  • Vaginal, anal and oral sex
  • Sharing sex toys without washing them or covering them with a new condom with each use
  • If a person with whitlows (herpes on the hand) touches a partner’s vagina, genitals or anal area

You can’t get herpes from sharing towels, cups, plates, cutlery or toilet seats

What are the symptoms?

Initial infection may have no symptoms at all in a number of people. These people can carry the infection for years without ever realising.

If symptoms are present, the following may be recognised:

  • Flu-like symptoms (fever, headache, muscle and joint aches)
  • Itching and/or tingling (discomfort) in the affected genital area.
  • Painful red spots or lumps (often you may see fluid inside the lump)
  • Small painful blisters or sores.
  • Pain passing urine
  • Lymph glands in the groin, neck or armpits may be swollen

How do you test for it?

Genital herpes can only be tested usually when sores are present, so if you notice symptoms come to clinic as soon as possible.

The doctor or nurse will take a sample from the blisters. This involves brushing a cotton-tipped swab (like a cotton-bud) over the area affected.

If you have no obvious blisters there is no routine test for herpes.

What is the treatment?

Treatments available aim to relieve the symptoms of the blisters and stop new blisters developing, although symptoms can disappear by themselves.  There is currently no cure for herpes.

Treatment is with antiviral tablets.  Sometimes a local anaesthetic cream may be used to numb the area and relieve discomfort.  Unlike treatments for cold sores, there are currently no over-the-counter remedies available for genital herpes.

Things you can do to help ease the pain are:

  • Gently bathe the area with diluted salt water.
  • If passing urine is very painful it can help to pass urine in the shower or in a warm bath.
  • Drink plenty of water
  • Rest

Herpes can be managed safely during pregnancy, but it is important to discuss with your midwife if you have, or have had, herpes infections.  If you are pregnant when you get symptoms of herpes for the first time it is important to inform your midwife and to attend the clinic to see a doctor as soon as possible.

Find out how to avoid STIs. The Herpes Virus Association