Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted infections caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). Painful ulcers form on and around the genital and rectal area. It is a chronic condition where the virus remains in the body even when symptoms aren’t seen. The virus usually becomes active a few times a year, with outbreak recurrence known to lessen over time.
Most people with HSV do not display any symptoms immediately, though they can still carry the inactive infection. When the primary infection develops, which may be weeks or months after being infected, the symptoms may include:
- Blisters that burst and form open sores on or around any mucous membrane; this includes the mouth (often referred to as cold sores), thighs, buttocks, genital and/ or rectal area
- Pain when urinating
- Blisters on the cervix and vaginal discharge in women
- General pains and flu-type symptoms
When the infection is in a dormant state no symptoms will be present. However, signs that the infection may reappear include burning, itching or tingling sensations prior to blister formation.
Genital herpes caused by both type one and type 2 of the herpes simplex virus (HSV). HSV is extremely contagious, passed from one person to another by direct contact. Even when the symptoms (blisters) are not apparent it is possible to transmit the infection. Herpes is not usually passed through objects however sharing sexual toys may increase the risk of infection.
Recurrence triggers are not perfectly understood, but possible examples include:
- Feeling run-down, unwell or stressed
- Drinking a lot of alcohol
- Having a lot of friction to the genital area during intercourse, which may be lessened by using lubricants
Treatment for genital herpes generally depends on the infection being either a primary infection or a recurrent outbreak. It is always best to seek a GP or the infection control department of the GHA for confidential medical advice.
In some cases antiviral medication will be appropriate, to prevent the HSV from multiplying. To alleviate symptoms, recommendations include:
- Cleansing the area with plain or salted water to prevent the blisters becoming infected
- Using cool wet tea bags or a flannel-wrapped ice pack to soothe the pain
- Drinking plenty of water to dilute urine, or pouring warm water over genital area whilst passing urine, to prevent pain
- Avoiding tight clothing that could irritate the skin
If you have genital herpes it is important to avoid sexual contact until the blisters have fully healed. Similarly, if you have an active cold sore you should avoid kissing your partner or performing oral sex.
Using a condom during any kind of intercourse is the best way to prevent the spread of herpes. Be aware however that the condom will not cover the entire genital area, and if an open sore is present on the surrounding flesh it could simply be passed on through sexual contact.
If you suspect you have the symptoms of genital herpes it is best to be tested via the GP or infection control unit, to help prevent the spread of the HSV further.