This common skin condition is caused by the Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV) which results in the formation of small blisters in and around the genital area. This occurs due to contact with an infected person or unprotected sex. It also occurs as a result of oral sex with a partner with cold sores around their mouth.
There are two strains of the Herpes Simplex Virus: HSV-1 and HSV-2. HSV-1 is the main cause of cold sores whereas HSV-2 is responsible for genital herpes. But just to confuse things, HSV-1 can sometimes cause genital herpes.
The thing to remember is that once you contract the Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV) it then remains with you for the rest of your life.
Who is most likely to get genital herpes?
It affects adults, in particular women aged between 20 and 35. The other reason for women catching this infection is that it can be transmitted from a pregnant woman to her baby during childbirth.
Men are affected but to a lesser degree than women.
Note: if you are pregnant and suffer an outbreak of genital herpes then see your GP as soon as possible. This virus can be transmitted from you to your baby during labour. This is dangerous for the baby.
Causes of genital herpes
The HSV-2 virus is the main culprit. It is transferred between people engaging in unprotected sex, using a sex toy (or toys) or contact with an infected person. The virus is transmitted irrespective of whether they present with any symptoms or not.
Symptoms of genital herpes
It can take weeks even months before the symptoms show. But if it is the first time you have acquired the virus then you may not experience any symptoms at all.
But the symptoms of genital herpes are:
- Fluid filled blisters which develop around the genital area, inside the thighs and inside the back passage. These blisters may burst, causing painful sores which last for up to 3 weeks.
- Difficulty in passing urine
- Redness, tingling and itching around the genital area
- Unusual discharge from the vagina
- Ache and pains
Basically, you have flu-like symptoms with a painful, itchy rash in and around the genital area. The infected areas will tingle or become itchy before the rash appears.
If you had a primary infection then this will have left the virus in a dormant state in your body, ready for activation. This activation causes regular outbreaks in the same area of the body.
These symptoms may be a sign of another condition so visit your GP who will be able to rule out any other possible causes.
Diagnosing genital herpes
Your first step is to visit your GP or if you prefer, a sexual health clinic. If you decide to visit a clinic then you can do without your GP’s knowledge. All information is kept confidential and will not be sent to your GP without your consent.
The clinic or your GP will examine you followed by taking a small swab from the infected area. This swab is sent to a laboratory for confirm his/her diagnosis.
A blood test may also be performed but this does not show the signs of a recent infection.
Treatment for genital herpes
There is no cure for the herpes virus. Once you have contracted this virus it stays with you for life but there various treatments available which will ease the symptoms.
These include self help measures and prescribed medication. Self help includes keeping the infected areas clean and applying a mild anaesthetic lotion: wearing cotton underwear: taking an over the counter painkiller: and washing your hands after contact with the infected area.
Prescribed treatment means antiviral medication such as acyclovir or valaciclovir. These are given on a short term basis only but you will be given long term medication if you suffer from repeated infections.
Can you prevent genital herpes?
It is possible to prevent an outbreak of genital herpes by following these steps:
- Use protection such as condoms during sex
- Avoid genital/anal contact if you or your partner exhibits signs of genital herpes.
- Avoid oral sex if either of you has cold sores
- Avoid sharing sex toys but if you do then wash them after use.
Stress, excessive alcohol consumption and sunbathing can trigger an outbreak of genital herpes. Women may find that they suffer an outbreak depending on where they are in their menstrual cycle.