Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted infection caused by a common virus known as herpes simplex (HSV). Learn about signs, symptoms and treatment options.
Many people carry the herpes simplex virus. NHS statistics (UK) show that 70% of people have facial herpes (cold sores), and 10% have genital herpes. Worldwide, these figures are higher.
“It is seen more commonly in women than men, and this is because, as with various infections, transmission is easiest from man to woman than vice versa,” says Dr. George Kinghorn, a consultant in Genitourinary Medicine at the Royal Hallamshire Hospital, Sheffield. He explains that most adults carry the virus and that some of us will develop symptoms and others won’t. According to the support site Herpes UK, three-quarters of adults do not realize they have it.
Genital Herpes Transmission
Genital herpes is transmitted via unprotected sexual contact (intercourse, oral or anal sex), sharing sex toys, and skin contact with an infected partner. More rarely, it is passed from mother to baby during pregnancy. It is caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV), of which there are two types:
HSV1 – causes cold sores and genital herpes
HSV 2 – mainly causes genital herpes
Once in the body, the virus remains dormant and may become active again, causing further outbreaks.
Genital Herpes Symptoms
Symptoms may be mild or non-existent, which means that many people do not realize they are carrying it. It’s easy to confuse certain symptoms with other conditions, such as the common cold. If symptoms do develop it’s typically within a week of infection, and they tend to last around two to three weeks.
– mild sores
– lesions and blistering to the genital area, buttocks, cervix, inner thighs. It -can create small cysts, which will burst after one to two days.
– itching or discomfort around the genital area
– cold or flu-like symptoms – fever and/or headaches
– painful urination
– vaginal discharge
– leg pains
Whitlow (herpes on the fingers)
It is possible to experience four to five recurrent episodes of HSV within the first two years of infection. However, in most cases, the immune system is strong enough to prevent further outbreaks.
Tests for Genital Herpes
Free testing and advice are available at genitourinary medicine (GUM) clinics, GP surgeries, and some high street pharmacies. A doctor or nurse will ask about symptoms and check the affected areas, taking a swab test of any sores or blisters, to send for analysis.
Genital Herpes Treatments
There is no “cure” for genital herpes, and once infected with the virus, it remains dormant in the body. However, a five-day course of episodic treatment, typically Aciclovir therapy, can help pinpoint the pain, stop the virus multiplying, and ease any symptoms. If it is a recurrent outbreak, suppressive treatment may be given, which is taken twice a day for six to 12 months.
During pregnancy, testing and treatment are vital because it can be passed from mother to baby, causing neonatal herpes.
Self-help for STIS
There are various things a person can do to relieve the symptoms of genital herpes. To relieve itching and discomfort try a salt-water bath or sit in a warm bath when passing urine, to help prevent stinging. Anesthetic creams such as Lidocaine are available over the counter and can be applied to the genital area to relieve soreness. Petroleum jelly (Vaseline) is also soothing.
Keep clothing loose, and wear natural fibers such as cotton and linen, to allow air to circulate, which aids healing. Drink plenty of water (six to eight glasses a day) to help dilute urine, so it’s less painful to go to the toilet. Avoid any perfumed body or bath products, as these will aggravate the skin.
Maintain scrupulous hygiene – wash hands frequently, use separate towels, and avoid touching the affected areas. Be cautious of common triggers such as excess sunlight, alcohol, sunbeds, and negative stress. Being run down will make recurrent outbreaks more likely.
Genital Herpes Prevention
Practice safe sex. If cold sores are present, avoid kissing and oral sex, as they are highly infectious. Use condoms with new sexual partners until both of you have been tested, and use a dental dam (or condom cut in half) for oral sex. If you are sharing sex toys, use a fresh condom over them each time.
Keep the immune system strong by eating well, exercising regularly, avoiding negative stress, and getting plenty of sleep. Being run down physically and emotionally means you are more susceptible to repeat outbreaks of any infection.
Genital herpes is a common infection, which does not cause cervical cancer or affect fertility. Once introduced to the body it cannot be eradicated but it’s easy to control via medication, complementary therapies, and self-help measures.