Genital herpes is an infection of a part of the genital area with the herpes simplex virus, usually acquired through having sex. After an initial infection, the virus lies within the nerve root, and may cause recurring symptoms from time to time.
Genital herpes is a painful infection around the genital area, which is usually sexually transmitted. If you think you have, or have been confirmed to have, genital herpes, one of the first things you might want to know is where you got it from. Has that slimy rat of a partner of yours been cheating on you? Not necessarily, is the answer, and to understand that, you have to know a bit more about how genital herpes infections occur.
What causes it?
You normally catch the infection the first time from sexual contact. Not absolutely always, but usually. You won't necessarily develop any symptoms at that point; indeed most people don't. The virus then retreats up a nerve, and from time to time is found back on the skin around the genital area. When the virus is active on the skin you may still have no symptoms at all, or you may have a painful rash. So what all this means is when you first had the symptoms isn't necessarily when you caught the infection. You might have caught it years ago and only just developed symptoms, or you may be having a recurrence of your initial infection. What's more, your partner might have caught it years ago and may have passed it on without even knowing it. Or your partner may have caught it years ago and had a recurrence which has resulted in you getting the infection. Your local genitourinary medicine (GUM) clinic will help you understand this and may advise testing your sexual partners. But the priority for you is having treatment and avoiding passing it on to others, rather than trying to find somewhere to point the finger of blame.
Read about the cause of genital herpes and the herpes simplex virus.
How would I know if I have it?
As above, you may never know. Lots of people are infected with the herpes simplex virus without ever realising. The most common symptom is a painful rash, which looks like one or more painful blisters or ulcers on the skin around your genital area. Sometimes it may be painful to pee, or there may be a discharge (from your vagina if you are female, or penis if you are male). The rash or pain can be around the vagina, penis or anus. You might feel generally not well in yourself.
Usually the first time you get the rash is the worst. Recurring symptoms tend to be less severe.
Find out more about the symptoms of genital herpes.
What should I do if I think I've been infected?
See your GP, or ideally, your local GUM clinic. They can confirm the diagnosis, check you for other sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and get you on treatment. They can also advise you about testing for your partner(s). In the UK you can find a GUM clinic in your area by searching the Family Planning Association's 'Find a clinic' service.
Learn more about the diagnosis of genital herpes, and the tests you may have.
Do I need any treatment?
An antiviral treatment is usually advised, particularly for the first episode. Unfortunately, it can't completely rid you of the infection. However, it will help make this particular episode shorter and less painful. If recurring episodes are not too bad you may not need treatment, but if you do, the sooner you start the treatment, the more effective it will be. There are also some measures which can keep you more comfortable.
Get more information about treatment for genital herpes.
If you are pregnant, it is particularly important to seek medical advice. Read more about genital herpes in pregnancy.
Can I avoid it?
Unfortunately, once you have had the infection, there is no way of completely getting rid of it from your body. So you could be infectious on and off without necessarily knowing it. There is also no guaranteed way of avoiding genital herpes. However, there are some measures which can help you avoid getting herpes, or avoid passing it on to others.
To avoid catching genital herpes or passing it on to other unfortunate souls, read more about prevention.
This leaflet just deals with genital herpes. See separate leaflet called Cold Sores for details about herpes simplex infection around the mouth. Herpes simplex infection can also affect other areas of the body. For example, a herpes simplex infection that develops on a finger is commonly called a whitlow.
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Further reading & references
- Herpes simplex - genital; NICE CKS, September 2012 (UK access only)
- 2014 UK National Guideline for the Management of Anogenital Herpes; British Association for Sexual Health and HIV (2014)
- Management of Genital Herpes in Pregnancy; British Association of Sexual Health and HIV and Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (Oct 2014)
- 2017 European guidelines for the management of genital herpes; International Union against Sexually Transmitted Infections (IUSTI) (2017)
- 2015 Sexually Transmitted Diseases Treatment Guidelines - Genital Herpes; Centers for Disease Control and prevention CDC, (2015)
- Hollier LM, Wendel GD; Third trimester antiviral prophylaxis for preventing maternal genital herpes simplex virus (HSV) recurrences and neonatal infection. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2008 Jan 23 (1):CD004946.
- Kang SH, Chua-Gocheco A, Bozzo P, et al; Safety of antiviral medication for the treatment of herpes during pregnancy. Can Fam Physician. 2011 Apr 57(4):427-8.
Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. Patient Platform Limited has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.