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Genital herpes

Herpes virus

What is herpes?

Herpes is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). There are two types of HSV:

Did you know? Unsafe sex also puts you at risk of HIV

  • HSV-1 - causes cold sores around the mouth and lips
  • HSV-2 - causes cold sores around the genitals and rectum - known as 'genital herpes'.1

How do you get genital herpes?

Genital herpes is passed on via sex (vaginal, anal and oral), close genital contact and through sharing sex toys. The virus is most infectious when there are visible sores, but it can also be passed on through cuts in the skin (e.g. fingers, hands, knees) or moist skin (around the genitals, mouth and anus) even when there are no symptoms.2

The best way to avoid genital herpes (and other STIs) is to use a condom. However, condoms do not provide full protection as the virus can be spread by skin-to-skin contact in areas not covered by it. Avoid oral-genital and oral-anal sex with someone who has cold sores on the mouth, or use a dental dam. You shouldn't kiss your partner if either of you have a cold sore around your mouth.3

If you are worried, or think you have genital herpes, see a healthcare professional.

What does genital herpes look like?

Most people don't experience symptoms when first infected and they can take months or years to develop. If symptoms do occur when first infected, they usually develop in four to seven days. Symptoms are normally more severe the first time than in re-occurring infections.4

The first time you are infected with HSV is called the primary infection. Symptoms for the first time include:

  • small blisters that burst to leave red, open sores around your genitals, rectum, thighs and buttocks
  • blisters and ulcers on the cervix (lower part of the womb) in women
  • vaginal discharge in women
  • pain when passing urine
  • feeling unwell, with aches, pains and flu-like symptoms.

These symptoms can last up to 20 days.4

Though symptoms of genital herpes clear up, the virus may occasionally reactivate causing outbreaks. Symptoms of a recurrent outbreak include:

  • a tingling, burning or itching sensation around your genitals, and sometimes down your leg, before blisters appear
  • painful red blisters that burst to leave sores around your genitals, rectum, thighs and buttocks
  • blisters and ulcers on the cervix in women.

Recurrent outbreaks are shorter and become less severe as your body learns to fight the virus more effectively.4

You can't diagnose genital herpes by looking at pictures because symptoms vary from person to person. Only a doctor or healthcare professional can diagnose it.

Can I get tested for genital herpes?

Yes. Your doctor or healthcare worker will take a swab from a blister. Tests for other STIs may also be done at the same time.2

How is genital herpes treated?

Treatment depends on whether you have a first time infection or your symptoms keep coming back. For a first time infection, you normally have to take an antiviral tablet.

If you are experiencing a recurrent outbreak, you will only be asked to take antiviral tablets if your symptoms are severe. Otherwise, your doctor may suggest a number of things to ease your symptoms including:

  • keeping the affected area clean using plain or salt water to prevent blisters or ulcers from becoming infected and help them heal quicker
  • applying a wrapped up ice pack to the sores to ease the pain and speed up the healing process
  • applying petroleum jelly, such as Vaseline, or a painkilling cream to any blisters or ulcers to reduce the pain when passing urine
  • drinking plenty of fluids to dilute your urine - this will make passing urine less painful
  • avoiding tight clothing because it may irritate the blisters and ulcers.5

To avoid spreading the virus, don't have any type of sex until the blisters or ulcers have cleared up as you are most infectious at this point.

If you do have sex, use a condom, even after your symptoms are gone - remember that the condom only covers the penis and that HSV can be spread by close genital contact.

What happens if I don't get treatment for genital herpes?

In rare cases, blisters can become infected by other bacteria causing a skin infection that spreads to other parts of the body like the lips, hands or fingers.

  • Genital herpes and HIV

If you are experiencing recurrent outbreaks of genital herpes you should also consider getting tested for HIV as this may be a sign of a weakened immune system.5

  • Pregnancy and genital herpes

A pregnant woman can pass genital herpes on to her baby. A healthcare professional will advise you about what to do if you develop genital herpes whilst you are pregnant, or if you have recurrent genital herpes and become pregnant.2

Photo credit: ©iStock.com/xrender

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Page last reviewed:
01 May 2015
Next review date:
01 November 2016