Genital herpes is classified as a sexually transmitted disease (abbreviated to STD). The condition will cause sores, known as herpetic sores. These are blisters, which are filled with fluid and can often be painful. They can also break open and ooze.

It’s estimated that just under twenty percent of people aged between fourteen and forty nine have had, or are being treated for the condition.

What causes genital herpes?

There are two types of the herpes simplex virus, but only one of them causes genital herpes. The first is known as HSV-1 and this causes cold sores. The second of these, HSV-2 is the one that causes genital herpes. The herpes virus gets into your body through the mucous membranes. These are thin layers of tissue the form the lining to the openings of your body. Typically, therefore, they’re found in your nose, mouth and genitals.

If the virus manages to penetrate this lining, it gets into your cells and they embed themselves into the nerve cells of your pelvis. These viruses then multiply and spread easily, which can make them difficult to treat. Both types of the herpes virus can be found in the following body fluids of people who are carrying the infection:

SemenVaginal dischargeSaliva

What are the symptoms of genital herpes?

The onset of symptoms can appear anywhere between two to thirty days after the virus has been contracted. One of the first signs is an outbreak of blisters. However, in some cases, the incubation period of genital herpes can be longer than this. Some people don’t notice any signs or symptoms for months or years after the initial infection.

When the infection does break out, it may last for a good few weeks. When the onset of symptoms has subsided, the virus will become dormant until something triggers it off again. After this, future outbreaks can be less severe and will usually pass over a lot more quickly. When someone has had recurrent infections, they learn to notice the signs, symptoms and triggers much more easily.

In males, blisters will break out on the penis, scrotum, or buttocks, usually around the anus.

In females, blisters will break out blisters around or near the vagina, anus, and buttocks. Female patients may sometimes experience pain when urinating and notice unusual vaginal discharge. These blisters, if in the vagina may take anything up to three weeks to heal. Sometimes an inflamed cervix is also a warning sign of herpes infection.

There are more generalized symptoms that will show up in either sex:

  • Outbreaks of blisters on the mouth, face and other places on the body that have been in contact with affected areas.
  • Just as with a cold sore, the site that is infected may start to burn, tingle or itch before the appearance of a blister.
  • Blister that appear may start to ulcer, they can also break open and ooze fluid.
  • After roughly a week of the outbreak occurring, the sores may get a crust over them.
  • The virus may affect your lymph glands, which can swell up.
  • You may develop flu like symptoms, such as aches, headaches and a fever

How many sores will genital herpes cause?

Each outbreak can differ in severity. Some people will experience lots of painful blisters, others might only get one sore. In some cases, the symptoms can be so mild that they go unnoticed.

How do you contract genital herpes?

There are several ways in which the virus can be contracted:

  • If you’ve had from skin-to-skin contact with the infected area in someone else. This includes vaginal, anal and oral sex, even when there are no visible sores or blisters.
  • If you happen to know that an area infected with a cold sore has touched your genitals.
  • It can be transferred on fingers from someone who has the infection, who has touched their blisters and then touches you.
  • The sharing of sex toys with someone who has herpes

It can’t be picked up from towels, cutlery or drinking vessels as the virus won’t survive on anything that isn’t skin.

How is genital herpes diagnosed?

A doctor should be able to diagnose herpes infection simply by looking at the sores that appear. In some cases, they may order a laboratory test to make certain, but in most cases this is not necessary. However, a blood test can identify traces of the herpes simplex virus before an outbreak occurs, in cases where you may suspect you’ve been exposed to the infection.

How is Genital Herpes Treated?

It’s important to note that treatment can only reduce outbreaks. It can’t cure the herpes virus. There are antiviral medications available that will help to speed up how quickly the sores heal, and they’ll also help minimise pain. They can usually be taken at the first signs of tingling or burning – especially in those people who have previously been diagnosed and know how to spot the warning signs.

At home, when caring for an outbreak it’s advised that you use mild soaps and gentle fragrance free products with warm water to keep the area clean and hygienic. Wearing loose cotton clothing can keep the area comfortable too.

I’m pregnant and have genital herpes – what do I do?

If you have been infected with the virus and you become pregnant or you have an active outbreak during your pregnancy, then you must speak with a healthcare professional to make sure you get the right form of treatment. A good doctor will inform you of what will happen before, during and after delivery. There are pregnancy safe treatments that can be administered to make sure there is no harm to you or your baby. In some cases, it may be necessary to deliver the baby via C-section.

However, it’s important to note that genital herpes can sometimes cause pregnancy complications like miscarriage or premature birth. In some cases, genital herpes during pregnancy can result in a serious illness to the baby, called neonatal herpes. It can be fatal if undiagnosed and untreated, but most babies recover with the right antiviral treatment. It’s worth noting that if you’ve had genital herpes before, the risk to the baby is low. It only become high if you end up contracting herpes during pregnancy.

Treatment for genital herpes when pregnant

In some cases, it is possible to use antiviral drugs to treat genital herpes during pregnancy. They can be used:

  • From late gestation – thirty six weeks onwards – to lessen the risk of an outbreak during the birth.
  • If you have been diagnosed after twenty eight weeks of pregnancy, until the birth

Depending on the time and severity of the outbreak a C-Section may be offered, but many women will be able to give birth naturally, even with the condition. Each case should be weighed up on the health of the mother and the severity of the outbreak, considering the outlook and prognosis for the undelivered child too.

What is the prognosis for genital herpes?

One of the best ways of protecting yourself and others from the condition is to practice safe sex. Always use condoms every time you have sex with someone. This is the main contributory factor in stopping genital herpes from spreading.

There isn’t a cure for genital herpes and it is a condition that can only be managed with medications, good hygiene practices and safe sex. The virus will often stay dormant in your system until something triggers an outbreak. These can occur at times when you’re stressed, tired or have been unwell. Once the condition is diagnosed and treatment underway, your Doctor should discuss a treatment plan with you, that should help minimise and manage further outbreaks.

How long will an outbreak of genital herpes last?

This very much depends on your overall general health and how quickly your body can fight off the virus once it surfaces. It won’t last as long if you take antiviral medication at the first onset of symptoms. The first outbreak of herpes tends to be the most severe and will last the longest – anything up to three weeks. After this, outbreaks can still occur, but they should be less severe and disappear quicker, with the appropriate treatment plan in place. Doctors usually estimate subsequent outbreaks will only last a few days.

What can I do to manage the symptoms of genital herpes?

You must take antiviral medication as prescribed and directed by your Doctor. In addition to this, there are some other steps you can add into your routine. Bathe the area twice a day to avoid infection. Use warm, but not hot, water and mild soap, or even salt water solution. Pat the area dry very gently with a towel afterwards, and make sure this towel is only used for the area infected.

Keep ice packs in the freezer. Wrap these in towels and use them on affected areas to cool down any burning, reduce pain and soothe the skin. Make sure to keep well hydrated, this is more important than many may think. Drinking enough makes sure your urine is pale enough and isn’t painful to pass. The darker and stronger urine is, the more it will ‘burn’ as you pee. Don’t wear tight clothing, stick to loose, light layers to prevent irritation to the skin and the sores.

Is there any way I can prevent genital herpes?

Keeping yourself and your immune system as healthy as possible is one way forward. A good, sensible diet with the addition of a multivitamin supplement if needed will help keep you stronger and reduce the severity of attacks. Doctors believe that consuming too much alcohol is one factor that increases your chances of having an outbreak, as are higher levels of stress.

It may be worth keeping a note of your symptoms and outbreaks and seeing if there is any correlation between your lifestyle habits and the way the virus affects you. Then take steps to correct any imbalances. If you know you’re about to experience an outbreak, taking your antiviral medication straight away will help minimize the severity of the virus and how it affects you.

Is anal herpes the same as genital herpes?

They are one and the same condition, but the sores will appear on the anus rather that other genital areas. They are more likely to appear or be transmitted after anal sex with someone who is infected. The virus will manifest as red bumps or blisters around your anus. The other main symptoms of anal herpes are pain, discharge and constipation. Treatment for this is the same as for genital herpes.

If I have the symptoms of genital herpes, does that mean I have infected other people?

The symptoms of genital herpes differ widely between patients. Some will find they develop blisters within seven days of infection. Some find they do not experience any symptoms. The commonest early sign is a burning or itching sensation near to the genitals.

However, some people are natural carriers of the virus without developing any of the symptoms. This does mean it is easier to pass on to others. It is more contagious when the symptoms are actually showing, so from the time the blisters will first appear to the time they heal and drop off. The virus is more likely to be transmitted to a sexual partner at the beginning or at the end of an episode. You can pass it on to someone if you carry it, but don’t show any of the obvious signs.

I think I have the symptoms of genital herpes – what should I do?

If you have sores or bumps on your genitals, it’s worth pointing out that they can be caused by a range of other health conditions. It’s important to get diagnosed by a Doctor as soon as possible. If you don’t want to see a Doctor (though that is always advisable) then you can visit a sexual health clinic to talk to a trained health professional there. They can sometimes offer quicker diagnosis and treatment and will use the ‘genitals and urine’ system to test and treat you.

At a sexual health clinic, a professional there will want to talk to you about:

The symptoms you’ve gotThe sexual partners you’ve had

They’ll then take a swab from a blister or sore to test for presence of the virus. The test won’t be done if there are no visible sores or blisters. It also can’t tell how long you’ve had the virus.

It’s important to remember that if you have genital herpes then you must let all or any other previous sexual partners know so that they can get tested and treated if need be. This can all be done confidentially via the Doctor or Nurse who is treating you at the clinic.

Myths and Misconceptions about genital herpes

It’s one of the most common STDs but people can be surprisingly ill informed about how it develops and what to do. Here are some myths and misconceptions about the condition.

“It’s a condition you should feel ashamed and embarrassed about…”

It’s not a pleasant thing to have to discuss, granted, but people do get very embarrassed and ashamed about the condition. The truth is it does not always come of promiscuity or dangerous sexual behavior. It only takes sleeping with one partner to catch the infection. Doctors won’t judge you. They’re there to help and will offer diagnosis and treatment.

“I’ve slept with someone who has the infection…therefore I’m now infected too…”

It isn’t the case that if you sleep with someone who has genital herpes, you’ll get it too. The infection will only be passed on if the person who is infected is having an outbreak at the time. If you don’t sleep with someone whilst you’re having an outbreak the chance of passing it on is reduced.

Best practice is safe sex all the time and always wearing a condom, though they won’t always protect you 100%. Most Doctors and health professionals will just advise you to avoid sex until the outbreak passes.

“Cold sores are just the same as genital herpes…”

Cold sores are still herpes, they’re just a different strain. However, if you have oral sex with someone who has a cold sore, it can give you genital herpes. The risk becomes higher during the first outbreak of cold sores. If you know you’ve received oral sex from someone with a cold sore then washing with soap and warm water straight away can help decrease the risk of catching the virus, though it won’t completely remove it.

“Herpes isn’t that common really…what’s to worry about..?”

Seventy percent of the population are infected with some form of the herpes virus. So, it is a complete myth to say that it isn’t common. In fact, it’s one of the most common forms of STD.

“If you take medication for herpes, and the symptoms go…it means you’re cured…”

Once you have the virus, you have it for life and you can’t be cured. There are lots of steps you can take to minimize risks and prevent further outbreaks from being too bad, as we’ve already outlined and covered in this piece.

Resources and Further Reading:

https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/genital-herpes/

https://onlinedoctor.superdrug.com/genital-herpes-symptoms.html

https://www.healthline.com/health/std/genital-herpes
https://www.sh24.org.uk/sexual-health/stis/genital-herpes
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https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a5/Herpes_genitalis.jpg
https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/52/Herpes_simplex_virus_pap_test_2.jpg