Genital herpes is an infection of the genitals in both men and women, which can also affect the surrounding skin. It’s caused by the herpes simplex virus which can cause sporadic outbreaks of small, painful blisters. When the infection isn’t active, it usually hides within the nerves. It isn’t curable, but it can be managed with various treatments to avoid an outbreak that’s too uncomfortable or disruptive.
How common is it?
Genital herpes isn’t as widespread as chlamydia or gonorrhoea, but it is believed that 40 000 people are living with the infection in the UK – making it the fourth most common STI. This number could in fact be higher as genital herpes affects everybody differently, causing symptoms in some but not in others. The demographic where the infection rate for genital herpes is the highest include those younger than 25.
How do you get it?
Genital herpes is classed as an STI because it can be passed though vaginal, anal or oral sex. However, it can also just as easily be passed by skin-to-skin contact, which is why using a condom isn’t always a completely effective way to prevent transmission.
Expectant women with genital herpes can possibly pass the virus onto their children during the delivery process, but luckily treatment can be provided to make this less likely. The herpes simplex virus can affect a baby in different ways, depending on when a mother contracted the infection.
Many people aren’t aware of the fact that herpes simplex type 1 virus which causes cold sores can also affect the genitals. Transference such as this is likely to occur if a person with cold sores performs oral sex on a person that does not have the virus. This is also the risk if you perform oral sex on a person with genital herpes.
How is it diagnosed?
Although genital herpes outbreaks produce quite distinctive symptoms, they don’t affect everyone. In order to get a conclusive diagnosis, an STI test needs to be taken. These tests may be available from your doctor, GUM clinic or from online sources providing laboratory processed tests. A laboratory will be able to analyse urine samples or lesion swabs taken from an infected area to provide you with a diagnosis.
If you think you may have genital herpes or you are experiencing painful red blisters on the genitals, thighs, buttocks and rectum, pain when you urinate, vaginal discharge (women), fever and/or a general feeling of malaise, then you should look to get tested as soon as possible.
Genital herpes testing
Genital herpes tests may be available from your doctor or local GUM clinic. You also have the option to use a site such as LabsDirect which provides you with a way to collect a sample at home and send it off for analysis at a laboratory. This is a similar procedure to the one that would be followed by a GP or GUM clinic, except you collect the sample and receive your results straight from the testing laboratory.
Can genital herpes be cured?
HSV 1 as well as HSV 2 cannot be cured; however, this doesn’t mean that you’ll have to deal with uncomfortable symptoms for the rest of your life. For many people who do experience symptoms, the worst outbreaks tend to be the earlier ones, eventually growing less severe with time.
Apart from using methods to make you comfortable during an outbreak, such as cleaning blisters with salt water to prevent bacterial infections or applying lidocaine gel to help with pain, there are antiviral treatments that can reduce the duration of symptoms and force the virus back into submission. Treatments that have been proven to successfully deal with genital herpes are Valtrex, Famvir and Aciclovir.