The infection is caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). There are two types of HSV, type 1 and type 2. Most genital herpes is caused by type 2.
Cold sores around the mouth are also caused by HSV (usually by type 1).
HSV enters the body through small cracks in the skin or through the mouth, vagina, rectum, urethra (the tube where urine comes out) and under the foreskin.
It can be passed on through skin to skin contact during oral, vaginal or anal sex, or by sharing sex toys with someone who is infected.
You cannot get genital herpes from sharing baths or towels, from swimming pools, toilet seats or from sharing cups, plates or cutlery.
The virus will not pass through a condom but as condoms do not cover all of the genital area it is possible to infect genital skin that is not covered by the condom.
If you already have one type of HSV it is still possible for you to get the other type (although you may not notice any symptoms).
Not everyone who has the virus will get symptoms, which is why many people do not know they are infected. Only 10-20% of people who carry the infection will have been previously diagnosed.
Some people will get symptoms within four or five days of coming into contact with the virus. In other people, the virus may be in the body for several weeks, months or possibly years before any symptoms appear. Only one third of people will get symptoms at the time of infection. This means that when you get symptoms it doesn’t necessarily mean you have recently come into contact with the virus.
Symptoms may be mild or quite severe. If you do get symptoms they may include:
Recurrent outbreaks are usually milder than with the first outbreak and clear up more quickly (in about a week). You may experience, on average, 4 outbreaks per year and the frequency is likely to reduce over time.
You can only be certain you have genital herpes if you have a test while the sores are present. You can visit an AXESS sexual health clinic or your GP. A clinician can take a swab sample if you have ulcers or blisters present. Once you have had a diagnosis confirmed the clinician will be able to offer you advice for managing future outbreaks.
Many people will not need treatment and will have very few outbreaks. The aim of genital herpes treatment (antiviral tablets) is to relieve the symptoms only - it does not clear the virus from the body.
Some people choose not to take antiviral tablets and instead take over the counter painkillers such as paracetamol whilst their ulcers heal.
You can also use local anaesthetic ointment such as lidocaine. This will numb the skin where the sores are to ease the pain.
Some people use longer ‘suppressive’ treatment courses if:
The treatment you can buy for facial cold sores is not recommended for genital herpes as topical treatments (such as creams or gels) are less effective than oral treatments.
Using condoms reduces the risk of contracting all sexually transmitted infections including genital herpes.
Genital herpes can be passed on even when there are not blisters present.
However, the blisters and sores are highly infectious, so if you or a partner have cold sores or genital herpes:
It is rare for genital herpes to cause any long term health problems. However, the virus remains in the body and can cause further outbreaks. It is common to get outbreaks at times when your immune system is less able to keep the virus under control, for example, when you feel run down or if someone is pregnant. If you experience symptoms of genital herpes during pregnancy then it is important to tell your midwife and/or obstetrician.
To find out more information on herpes click here