What is genital herpes?
Genital herpes is caused by a virus – herpes simplex virus (HSV) – and there are 2 types, type 1 and type 2 that can cause cold sores around both the mouth and on the genitals. In the UK around 50% of sexually active adults carry the type 1 virus and 3-10% carry Type 2. There were more than 32,000 diagnoses in England in 2013.
What are the symptoms of genital herpes and how can you spot them?
Often there are no symptoms but when the virus is active some people can feel a bit run down and flu like. Cold sores often start as a tingling or burning sensation on the genital or anal area. Small fluid filled blisters can then appear on the skin around this area, including your penis or vagina and also your bottom, thighs and rectal area. It is less common, but blisters can also occur inside your urethra and if you’re female, on your cervix. Some people get frequent cold sores, some people can get one cold sore and never get another and some people never get a cold sore because the virus does not become active.
What is your advice for someone who has just found out they have it, and what should they do next?
Genital herpes can show no symptoms for months or even years after contracting the virus.
If you have symptoms of genital herpes for the first time you should visit your GP or a sexual health clinic where they can prescribe you antiviral tablets, which will help stop the virus reproducing. You can also get antiviral ointments, that can really speed up the healing time and ease symptoms. If a cold sore does become established you can get gel patches that can help the healing process. For really severe cases you doctor might prescribe a long term course of tablets.
If a cold sore bursts, this is the most contagious time and the virus can be spread until they are completely healed. It’s worth knowing that the virus can spread to other parts of your own body so it is really important to be aware of this especially with things like sex toys and look out for secondary infections. Always keep the blistered area clean with plain or salt water to prevent infection and Vaseline or an anaesthetic cream (such as Lidocaine) can reduce pain and stop affected areas sticking together.
How can you protect yourself from catching the STI?
Most transmissions occur from oral, vaginal or anal sexual contact with someone who carries the virus. It can be passed from person to person even when symptoms are not visible, including skin to skin. The easiest way to protect yourself is to always use condoms or dental dams if you are with a partner who has not been tested and cleared for STI’s, even if there are no symptoms. This will not give total protection as the virus can be present on any uncovered skin. If you have any symptoms or cold sores you should not have sexual contact with another person.