Genital Herpes – what you need to know

Find out all you need to know about genital herpes and book your test today

Your Sexual Health have a range of private STI tests that can diagnose genital herpes so that you can get the treatment that you require and avoid passing the condition on to future sexual partners. Genital herpes can be extremely uncomfortable and unpleasant and whilst knowing you have the condition won’t cure it, you can take measures to speed up recovery time. Find out more about the condition below and book your genital herpes test at one of our clinics today.

What is genital herpes?

Genital herpes is a common sexually transmitted infection caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). It’s most distinguishable symptoms are blisters affecting the genitals and surrounding areas which can be painful and extremely uncomfortable. HSV is the same virus that causes cold sores to form on the lips and mouth and can affect any moist lining or mucous membrane.

There are two types of herpes simplex virus, type 1 and type 2. Both types are highly contagious when in their active state and can pass from person to person through direct contact. Genital herpes is a long term condition that will flare up from time to time with outbreaks occurring about five or six times in the first two years and less frequently thereafter.  The course of herpes can vary between individuals.

How can you catch genital herpes?

HSV is usually transmitted as the result of direct contact with someone who has the virus in its active state. Genital herpes can therefore be transmitted through having unprotected vaginal, anal or oral sex with someone with the virus.

Unfortunately 8 out of 10 people don’t experience any symptoms of genital herpes until sometime after infection and therefore don’t know they have the condition. These people are still able to transmit the virus, although the risk is lower than if there is an active infection, and help spread the condition. The only way to be certain that you don’t have the virus is to get tested.

Genital herpes symptoms

Many people with the herpes simplex virus don’t experience any symptoms when first infected. In many cases it can be months or even years after exposure that you may notice your first outbreak. Those who notice symptoms soon after exposure will usually flare up four to seven days after contact.

Primary herpes

The symptoms of the primary outbreak are usually more severe than recurrent cases and may last up to 20 days. They include: –

  • Small blisters that burst to leave red open sores around and near the affected area including genitals, rectum, thighs and buttocks.
  • Blisters or ulcers on the cervix in women
  • Pain when urinating
  • Vaginal discharge in women
  • Flu-like symptoms including aches, pains and general feeling of being unwell.

Recurrent outbreaks

Once the initial symptoms of genital herpes have cleared up, the virus will remain in your body in a dormant state in a nerve near the initial exposure. The virus may then flare up from time to time by travelling from the nerve to the skin. Recurrent outbreaks are usually less severe and last for less time than primary outbreaks. Symptoms that you can expect from recurrent outbreaks include: –

  • Tingling, burning or itching sensation around the source of the initial infection often travelling down your leg before blisters flare up again.
  • Painful red blisters like those evident in primary herpes that burst to leave sores around the affected area.
  • Blisters and ulcers on the cervix in women.

How is genital herpes treated?

Primary infection

The primary infection of genital herpes can be treated with an anti-viral drug called aciclovir which will need to be taken five times a day. Aciclovir works by preventing HSV from multiplying, but unfortunately cannot completely remove HSV. The length of treatment will depend on the state of the virus when you begin your medication with most cases requiring five or more days of the tablets.  Other similar antiviral drugs can also be used for treatment.

Recurrent episodes

If you have been diagnosed with genital herpes before and are experiencing a mild recurrent episode, you should visit your GP. Often your GP will offer you advice on ways to help ease the symptoms without the need for treatment. Some of the home remedies for genital herpes include: –

  • Keeping the affected area clean using either plain or salt water will prevent ulcers and blisters from becoming infected and speed up recovery time.
  • An ice pack wrapped in a flannel or the use of cold tea bags can soothe pain caused by the blisters, but ice should never be applied directly to skin.
  • Petroleum jelly or a painkilling cream applied to blisters will reduce pain when passing urine.
  • Drinking plenty of fluid will make urination less painful, whilst urinating whilst pouring water over genitals may also reduce pain.
  • Avoiding tight clothing will help reduce pain.

Suppressive treatment

If you are having more than six recurrent outbreaks in one year or the outbreaks are causing particular pain you may require suppressive treatment to prevent future outbreaks. This usually consists of taking aciclovir twice a day for up to a year. Although taking suppressive treatment will reduce the risk of passing the condition on to your partner, it will not completely remove it.

How can genital herpes be prevented?

Genital herpes is contracted by having sex with an infected individual. Because the condition is so contagious it is important to avoid having sex with someone who has the virus until blisters have completely healed and for a further week thereafter.  You should also avoid sharing sex toys and kissing your partner if they have a cold sore.

Many people with genital herpes do not have symptoms or signs of infection straight away and therefore it’s important that you always wear a condom when having sex with a new sexual partner.

How many people have genital herpes in the UK?

According to the latest figures from NHS, genital herpes is a common condition amongst 20 to 24 year olds in the UK. In 2013, there were 32,279 who attended sexual health clinics in England with an attack of genital herpes.

Genital herpes and pregnancy

Genital herpes can cause problems for pregnant women which can be more serious depending on whether you already have genital herpes or whether you developed it for the first time while pregnant.

Existing genital herpes

If you had genital herpes before you were pregnant then the risk to your baby is very small due to the antibodies that are passed to your baby in the latter stages of pregnancy. If you have open sores from genital herpes at the time of birth then the chances of passing herpes on to your baby rises slightly and a suppressive course of acyclovir may be adopting in order to remove this risk of occurrence.

Development of genital herpes

If you develop genital herpes during the third trimester of your pregnancy then the risk of passing on the condition to your baby is considerably higher. This is because protective antibodies will not have time to develop and pass on to your baby before birth. If you develop genital herpes during the latter stages of pregnancy then you may be required to undergo a caesarean section delivery to prevent spread of the infection.

Genital herpes STI testing options

Your Sexual Health offer a range of private STI testing options which can diagnose herpes simplex type 1 and 2 using laboratory methods. We have individual tests that use either urine, swab or blood samples to diagnose the condition. We also have a number of profile tests which can diagnose a range of STIs using one sample offering you the complete peace of mind that you are all clear.