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Genital Herpes

Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted infection that affects an estimated 70% of the UK population. It is caused by either the herpes simplex virus 1 (HSV-1 - oral herpes) or the herpes simplex virus 2 (HSV-2 - genital herpes).

Although genital herpes is not yet curable, managing the virus can alleviate symptoms and reduce recovery time. This is done with antiviral medications which are available at HealthExpress. Find out more information about genital herpes below.


Medically reviewed by Dr. Plauto Filho Written by our editorial team Last reviewed 10-05-2024

What is genital herpes?

Genital herpes is a viral STI caused by a strain of herpes simplex virus (HSV type 2) which affects both men and women. It is the most common STIs worldwide, in fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 419 million people Trusted source World Health Organization (WHO) Government Source International Public Health Information Go to source across the world carry the genital herpes virus.

In the majority of cases, the virus causes painful blisters and sores across the genito-anal area. However in many cases, it can present no obvious symptoms so many have it without realising.

This strain can be highly contagious and can affect many areas of the body through skin-to-skin contact, not just from penetrative sex, although it is more commonly associated in and around the genitalia and the anal passage.

If women or men do experience sores or blisters around the genital region, then the best option is to take an STI test either at your local GUM clinic or sexual health clinic.

What causes genital herpes?

Genital herpes is caused by a specific strain of the herpes simplex virus, known as type 2 (HSV-2). Herpes simplex virus also causes a similar viral infection called cold sores or oral herpes (herpes labialis), which is caused by the strain herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1).

Once contracting the virus, the virus stays in your body forever but for the most part remains inactive. This doesn’t mean you will have genital herpes all the time, typically your body’s natural defences will help to keep the virus dormant. However, you may experience occasional outbreaks.

What triggers genital herpes outbreaks?

Outbreaks are generally linked to your immune system being weakened, as your body is unable to fight off the virus. However, once you learn how the virus affects your body, you can successfully manage it with antiviral treatment.

Factors that can trigger outbreaks include:

  • colds, flus or other infections
  • tiredness or fatigue
  • hormonal changes (like in a women’s menstrual cycle)
  • stress and other psychological factors
  • surgery or injury
  • smoking or drinking
  • ultraviolet light (from sunbathing or sunbeds)
  • friction (such as from sex or tight clothing)

This also means that people who are immunocompromised are not only at a higher risk of contracting the virus, but also are more likely to have frequent and more severe outbreaks of symptoms.

Risk factors include those who:

  • have autoimmune disorders (e.g HIV or AIDs)
  • are over the age of 65
  • are undergoing cancer treatment
  • are taking immunosuppressant medications (e.g to prevent rejection after an organ transplant)

If you fall under these categories and have frequent herpes outbreaks, your doctor will most likely monitor your condition and treatment carefully.

How do I catch genital herpes?

Simply put, genital herpes is most often contracted through sexual contact and sexual intercourse (including anal sex), but other objects such as sex toys have been known to transfer the infection. It's important to remember this is very uncommon, but for peace of mind you can take the correct precautions to prevent contracting or keeping the virus from spreading further.

You also don’t need to have symptoms to transmit the virus. Although the transmission rates are a lot lower, some research Trusted source PubMed Government Source Database of Biomedical Research Go to source estimates that genital herpes can be transmitted on around 10% of the days during an asymptomatic outbreak (compared to around 20% in those with visible symptoms). This is a phenomenon known as ‘asymptomatic shedding’ and whilst it is rare, it’s more likely to occur within the first 3 - 6 months of infection.

Can I get genital herpes from oral herpes?

In some cases, genital herpes can be caused by the herpes simplex strain (HSV-1) that usually causes cold sores. It can be transmitted from somebody infected with cold sores performing oral sex on someone who doesn’t have the virus.

On the other hand, you can also develop cold sores from mouth-to-skin contact with somebody with genital herpes. With this many avenues of transmission, it’s important you regularly get tested for STIs.

What are the symptoms of genital herpes?

Genital herpes symptoms appear in stages. The first stage is known as the ‘prodrome phase’ which is when the virus is travelling up to the skin. This stage starts hours before the visible symptoms appear.

Signs in both men and women may include:

  • redness
  • itchiness
  • tingling
  • painful urination

Many may experience flu-like symptoms during their first outbreak, such as headache, nausea, swollen lymph nodes and a fever.

Shortly after these initial symptoms appear, small lesions will appear in and around the genitals and rectum. They start as small red bumps that appear in the genitalia and rectum that feel itchy and painful. They soon become fluid-filled blisters that break and ooze.

Finally, the blisters begin to heal after a couple of days but sometimes can take up to 2 - 4 weeks in initial outbreaks. The sores will scab and crust over, although they may break and bleed.

A genital herpes sore can look like several conditions such as jock itch, ingrown hairs, razor burn or genital warts. Please refer to the slides below to help distinguish from other conditions and see what genital herpes looks like.

Please note: images are explicit in nature

How do I know if I have genital herpes?

You cannot truly know just from looking at your symptoms, especially if it’s your first outbreak. It’s also difficult to know if you have the virus or not because it is often symptomless or can look like other STIs and infections. Therefore, it’s very important you get tested.

The best way is to visit a sexual health clinic if you have any symptoms or think you may have been in contact with an STI. Whilst it may feel uncomfortable to open up about your sexual health, you’re a step closer to getting rid of genital herpes symptoms as well as preventing the spread. If you do feel nervous, there are also remote testing options available for genital herpes both at the NHS and through private healthcare providers online.

For genital herpes, testing usually involves a swab test. This is where the nurse will use a cotton bud to gently take a swab of one of the sores. At some providers, you can often do this yourself. If you have no visible symptoms or it has been some time since you had them, you can still get tested. In these cases, you will do a blood test which may either be through a syringe or a finger prick test if you have to do it yourself.

How do I get rid of genital herpes?

Unfortunately, there is not yet a cure for genital herpes. However, there are many prescription treatments available to help alleviate symptoms as well as reduce the severity and frequency of outbreaks.

The main treatment for genital herpes is antiviral medicines such as Aciclovir, Valaciclovir (Valtrex) and Famciclovir (Famvir). They work by attacking the virus itself to stop it multiplying, but also help the body’s immune system to naturally fight off the virus. They are effective and work within days, although you should keep taking the full course to prevent additional bouts.

You can also get treatment for any recurrent infections and to prevent infections from occurring if you get them regularly. Your doctor may also be able to recommend a topical treatment (a cream or ointment) for any discomfort such as lidocaine 5%.

To help speed up healing and prevent spreading the virus, you should also:

  • avoid tight clothing that irritates your sores
  • not touch your sores unless you’re applying a cream
  • not have any vaginal, anal or oral sex until your sores have completely healed
  • keep the affected area clean using plain or salt water to avoid infection
  • apply an ice pack wrapped in a cloth or flannel to soothe pain
  • wash your hands thoroughly after touching the affected area

How do I prevent genital herpes?

Safe sex is the best way to prevent contracting the virus. You should use barrier contraception such as male or female condoms to prevent catching the virus, especially with new sexual partners. Other contraceptives, such as the pill, patches or IUD / IUS will not protect you from STIs.

Regular STI testing is also a good preventive measure if you change sexual partners. Even if you have no symptoms, you could still have contracted the virus and may unknowingly be spreading it.

Here’s some other things you can do to protect yourself:

  • clean sex toys thoroughly after shared use
  • talking openly about you and your partner’s sexual history
  • making sure you’re up to date with your HPV (human papillomavirus) and hepatitis B vaccines

How do I buy treatment online?

At HealthExpress, you can buy Aciclovir, Valtrex or Famvir for the treatment of genital herpes infections. Our service is completely secure from order to delivery. To purchase treatment, you will need to fill out a confidential medical questionnaire that will be reviewed by one of our registered doctors. Once approved for treatment, your medication will be dispensed and dispatched discreetly by our pharmacy right to your door.

Further reading

What causes sexually transmitted infections (STIs)

What causes sexually transmitted infections (STIs)

Reviewed by Dr. Anand Abbot
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