Genital herpes

Contagious, painful and unsightly, a herpes outbreak is bad enough on your mouth let alone your private parts. What's more, once you're infected, you've got it for life.

graphic of herpes virus

Not so gross close up, is it?

What is genital herpes?

Basically, cold sores. But on your genitals.

Genital herpes is caused by the herpes simplex virus, which also causes the type of cold sores you get on your mouth and sometimes hands.

Over 70% of the population in the UK has the milder HSV I virus responsible for cold sores, and 10% has genital herpes – though numbers are creeping up. In 2008, a record number of people (28,957) were diagnosed with genital herpes. Just over 60% were women.

How do you catch genital herpes?

It’s passed on through penetrative and oral sex, but also close genital contact. The virus is most contagious when there are visible sores, but it can also be passed on through the skin or mucous membranes when there are no symptoms.

Like cold sores, after the first outbreak the virus remains in your body for the rest of your life, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll always have the physical symptoms. Finding out you’ve got an STI for life can be upsetting, so we’ve included a section on emotional support below.

What are the symptoms of genital herpes?

The first attack of herpes is usually the worst. Symptoms are likely to appear within 10 days of infection, and include feeling generally unwell, a headache, temperature, swollen glands and aching muscles. These are followed by a tingling or itching sensation in the groin area before small watery blisters appear around the genitals or anus. These burst to leave painful sores that sting even more when you pee – especially for women.

How is genital herpes treated?

If you feel a tingling sensation in your groin similar to the early signs of a cold sore, go to your nearest genitourinary medicine (GUM) clinic, or make an appointment to see your doctor (GP). They’ll swab fluid from the blisters or sores and send it off to the lab for confirmation.

Treatment involves a course of antiviral tablets, usually prescribed within five days of the start of the outbreak. The first outbreak lasts between two and four weeks, but there are things you can do to speed this up and ease the pain. Bathing the sores in salt water, using a cold compress wrapped in a tea towel, or even applying cold tea bags directly to the sores can all help. Anaesthetic ointment can also soothe the pain, but don’t be tempted to use over-the-counter treatments for cold sores, as they’re not suitable for genital herpes.

Subsequent attacks – if you get them – are less severe and may be brought on by certain triggers, including illness, stress, or too much friction during sex. However, many people who get herpes don’t have more than one attack.

What if I ignore it?

Unlike most STIs, genital herpes will eventually clear up by itself so it’s not essential to have treatment – although it can speed up recovery.

I’m pregnant and have genital herpes

If a pregnant woman contracts genital herpes in the first three months of her pregnancy there’s a small risk of miscarriage. Picked up later on, the virus can be passed onto a baby during a vaginal birth.

Can I protect myself from contracting herpes?

Condoms offer some protection, but as the virus can spread from skin-to-skin contact they’re not foolproof.

Avoid oral-genital and oral-anal sex with someone who has cold sores on the mouth, or use a dental dam.

The best way to avoid catching genital herpes (or any STI) is to limit the number of sexual partners you have. You can also try to ask anyone they’re sleeping with for their sexual history and whether they’ve ever had genital herpes.

How soon can I have sex again?

It’s recommended you don’t go there in the early stages of an outbreak, during an outbreak, and for at least a week after the symptoms have gone. This is to help prevent you passing the symptoms onto someone else.

It’s making me depressed

You might be feeling guilty, angry or upset – this is very common after being diagnosed. The most important thing to realise is you’re not alone, and that herpes is no one’s ‘fault’. We’d suggest visiting a support resource like the excellent Earth Wind and Herpes Tumblr – you’ll find lots of other young people talking about how they cope with it.

Visit the doctor and ask whether they can give you medication to suppress the symptoms, meaning you’ll get fewer attacks.

It’s also vital to look after yourself, reduce stress levels, eat well and get enough sleep. Like cold sores, herpes arrives when we’re run down.

There are even dating websites for people with STIs, where you can meet other people with the same diagnosis as you.

Photo of herpes virus by Shutterstock

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By Nicola Scott

Updated on 29-Sep-2015