Genital herpes is an infection caused by the Herpes simplex virus (HSV). There are two viruses called Herpes simplex, types 1 and 2. The viruses are very similar and both can cause blisters or ulcers. When these occur on the face they are known as ‘cold sores’ and when they occur on the genitals they are called ‘genital herpes.’
Herpes can cause painful blisters on the genitals and the surrounding areas. Herpes is a chronic (long-term) condition. The virus remains in your body after treatment and can become active (recur) again.
There are two types of herpes simplex virus (HSV), type 1 and type 2. Both types are highly contagious and can be passed easily from one person to another by direct contact. Genital herpes is usually transmitted by having sex (vaginal, anal or oral) with an infected person. Many people who carry the virus are unaware they have been infected because there are often few or no initial symptoms. However, certain triggers can activate the virus, causing an outbreak of genital herpes.
The virus is highly contagious and spreads from one person to another through skin-to-skin contact, such as during vaginal, anal or oral sex.
There are two types of HSV:
Genital herpes is caused by both type 1 and type 2 HSV.
Whenever HSV is present on the surface of the skin it can be passed on to a partner. The virus passes easily through the moist skin that lines your genitals, mouth and arse. In some cases it is also possible to become infected by coming into contact with other parts of the body that can be affected by HSV, such as the eyes and skin. For example, you can catch genital herpes if you have oral sex with someone who has a cold sore. A cold sore is a blister-like lesion around the mouth that is also caused by HSV.
Genital herpes cannot usually be passed on through objects, such as towels, cutlery or cups because the virus dies very quickly when away from your skin. However, you may become infected by sharing sex toys with someone who is infected.
Genital herpes is particularly easy to catch when an infected person has blisters or sores. However, it can be caught at any time, even when someone shows no symptoms at all.
Once you have been infected with HSV it can recur every so often to cause a new episode of genital herpes. This is known as recurrence.
It is not completely understood why HSV is reactivated, but certain triggers may be responsible for the symptoms of genital herpes recurring.
Possible triggers include:
Most people with the herpes virus don’t experience any symptoms when first infected, as a result many people don’t know they have the condition. Symptoms may not appear until weeks or months or sometimes years after you’re first exposed to the virus. If you experience symptoms when first infected, they usually appear four to seven days after you have been exposed to the virus.
The symptoms of genital herpes include:
These symptoms may last up to 20 days. However, the sores will eventually scab and heal without scarring.
If you think you may have genital herpes you should visit one of our nurse led sexual health clinics as soon as possible.
The initial diagnosis of genital herpes should be made by a specialist nurse or doctor at a sexual health clinic.
A swab is used to collect a sample of fluid from a blister. The sample will be tested for the herpes simplex virus (HSV). You may also be screened for other STIs.
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Primary infection – If you have genital herpes for the first time, see your GP or visit your local GUM clinic. They may prescribe antiviral tablets which you will need to take a course of.
Recurrent outbreaks – You should visit your sexual health clinic if you have been diagnosed with genital herpes before and are experiencing a recurrent outbreak. If the symptoms are mild, they may suggest things you can do at home to help ease your symptoms without the need for treatment.
If your symptoms are more severe, you may be prescribed a course of antiviral tablets.
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