What you need to know

Genital herpes is caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). Both types (HSV 1 and 2) infect the genital and anal area, the fingers and hands (whitlows) and the mouth and nose (cold sores).The herpes virus can be passed on by having unprotected vaginal, anal or oral sex, sharing sex toys, and skin-to-skin contact. Although the symptoms of genital herpes will clear up by themselves, severe outbreaks can be treated with antiviral tablets.

Signs and symptoms

Many people will not have any visible signs or symptoms at all, or not be aware of them.

Some people will get symptoms within 4 to 5 days of coming into contact with the virus. In other people the virus may be in the body for several weeks, months or possibly years before any signs or symptoms appear. Therefore, when you get symptoms it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve only just come into contact with the virus.

If you do get signs or symptoms, they usually follow a pattern. You may have some or all of the following:

  • Feeling generally unwell with flu-like symptoms such as fever, tiredness, headache, swollen glands, aches and pains in the lower back and down the legs or in the groin. This will be followed by:
    • Stinging, tingling or itching in the genital or anal area.
    • Small, fluid-filled blisters anywhere in the genital or anal area, on the buttocks and the tops of the thighs. These burst within a day or two leaving small, red sores which can be very painful.
    • Pain when passing urine (peeing) caused by the urine flowing over the sores.

These symptoms usually disappear without any treatment. The herpes virus then remains in the body, but it is inactive. The virus could occasionally become active again, causing further genital herpes outbreaks. This is called recurrent herpes. Some people might contract herpes and never display any symptoms.

Testing and treatment

The test for genital herpes is a swab taken from the skin when there is a blister or ulcer. Results are available within two weeks. There is no routine test available if there are no obvious blisters or ulcers.

Although the symptoms of genital herpes will clear up by themselves, severe outbreaks can be treated with antiviral tablets. This helps to ease the pain and speed up the healing process.

Other things you can do to ease the pain are:

  • take a cool shower
  • apply local anaesthetic cream (no other cream, ointment or lotion should be used unless prescribed by a doctor)
  • gently bathe the area with diluted salt water
  • pee (pass urine) in a warm bath if it’s really painful, especially for women.

If you currently have blisters or ulcers and would like to be tested, or you are having a severe outbreak and would like to access antiviral medication, you can visit the Beckenham Beacon sexual health clinic.

For more information about herpes go to the Herpes Viruses Association website.