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Genital herpes

Genital herpes: causes, symptoms and treatment

Genital herpes is common viral infection. Although it is not yet curable, managing the virus can help relieve painful symptoms and reduce recovery time.

This is done with antiviral medications which are available here at SpeedyHealth. Find out more information about genital herpes below.

Dr. Adrian Rawlinson

Medically reviewed by Dr. Adrian Rawlinson

Written by our editorial team Last reviewed 30 January 2024

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What is genital herpes?

Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). The virus causes painful blisters and sores to appear on or around the genito-anal area. Sometimes, you can have the infection without showing any symptoms.

Genital herpes is a common STI. In 2018, the CDC estimated that there were 572,000 new genital herpes infections in the United States among people aged 14 to 49 years old.

HSV can be highly contagious and can affect many areas of the body through direct skin-to-skin contact.

What causes genital herpes?

Genital herpes is caused by the herpes simplex virus, of which there are two types, HSV-1 and HSV-2.

  • HSV-1 mainly causes oral herpes which results in cold sores developing in and around the mouth. However, this strain can also cause genital herpes. It is spread through oral contact.
  • HSV-2 is spread through sexual contact and results in genital herpes.

Genital herpes is often spread by direct skin-to-skin contact during sexual activity. This is why you can get the infection by having vaginal, anal, or oral sex with someone who has the infection. During sex you are more likely to come into contact with:

  • A herpes sore;
  • Saliva from someone who has oral herpes;
  • Genital fluids from someone with genital herpes;
  • Skin in the oral or genital area of someone with the infection.

It’s important to note that some people infected with the virus may show no symptoms however, they can still spread the virus.

Herpes is not usually passed on from surfaces such as toilet seats, bedding, or common areas like swimming pools. It is not transmitted by touching objects, such as soaps or towels.

What are triggers for recurring episodes?

Many people find that episodes occur:

  • when they are exhausted or burnt out
  • when they are stressed
  • around their period
  • when there is skin irritation in the genital area

Try to adjust your lifestyle to avoid or reduce your triggers.

Can oral herpes cause genital herpes?

Yes. During oral sex, oral herpes can spread from the mouth to the genital area. In these cases, genital herpes are caused by the HSV-1 strain.

Where on the body can genital herpes appear?

In men, the sores or blisters can appear on the penis or scrotum. In women, these usually appear on the vulva and vagina. However, other areas of the body may also be affected such as the thighs, buttocks and the area between the genitals and the anus.

What does genital herpes look like?

During an outbreak, different genital herpes stages occur. Here are some genital herpes symptoms during each stage:

Stage 1: Tingling

If you've had herpes before, you may experience a tingling or burning sensation. People may also experience itching, irritation, and pain around their genitals. This happens before the painful blisters appear.

Stage 2: Blisters form

When the virus reaches the skins surface, small but painful fluid-filled blisters form around the genital area, buttocks, and upper thighs.

Stage 3: Open sores develop

The blisters that have formed in the previous stage then burst and leak out fluid. As a result, open sores or ulcers are left on the genital area.

Stage 4: Sores begin crusting and healing

Lastly, the open sores start to dry out and scab over. When this happens they may feel very itchy. After this, the scabs begin to heal and will eventually fall off by themselves.

Other common signs of genital herpes may include:

  • Pain when you pee
  • Discharge from the vagina or urethra
  • Flu-like symptoms (headaches, body aches, tiredness, or a fever)
  • Swollen glands

What else could it be?

Genital warts vs herpes

Both of these conditions are STIs however, they are caused by different viruses.

Genital warts is caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). On the skin, they appear as small, skin-coloured lumps that are said to look like 'cauliflowers'. The warts are white, red, pink or slightly darker than the skin.

Unlike genital herpes, genital warts generally do not cause symptoms but sometimes may be painful, itchy or can bleed. They may feel hard or soft depending on which part of the body they appear.

Genital herpes vs cold sores

Both of these conditions are caused by the HSV. However, cold sores are usually caused by HSV-1, while HSV-2 primarily causes genital herpes. Other differences are shown below:

Genital herpes Cold sores
Location Mainly affects the genital and anal areas, although it can also occur on other parts of the body. Usually affects the mouth, lips, and surrounding areas.
Transmission Usually spread through sexual contact, including vaginal, anal, or oral sex. Often spread through oral-to-oral contact, such as kissing or sharing utensils.
Symptoms Prodromal symptoms such as itching, tingling, or burning sensations may occur before the sores appear.
This phase is followed by the development of fluid-filled blisters.
People may also experience prodromal symptoms as with genital herpes.
This is followed by painful, fluid-filled blisters occurring in the affected area.

How long does a genital herpes outbreak last?

The first outbreak of genital herpes could last from 2 to 3 weeks and may be more severe than future episodes. Over time, outbreaks usually happen less often, are shorter and less severe. Future episodes usually last between 7 to 10 days.

Some people will experience frequent outbreaks, while others may not have any symptoms.

Once you are infected with HSV, the virus stays in your body. It lies dormant in between outbreaks but triggers can reactivate it. If this happens, the herpes sores and blisters can reappear on the body.

When HSV is dormant you won’t experience any symptoms. However, you are still infected with the virus.

How is it diagnosed?

Your doctor may diagnose genital herpes based on how the blisters or sores look. They may also take a sample from the blister(s) for testing. This involves breaking open a fluid-filled blister and using a swab to take a sample of this liquid.

Sometimes, a blood test is needed to look for HSV antibodies.

Your doctor may also ask about your symptoms, any previous HSV infections and may take a brief sexual history.

How can it be prevented?

You can lower your chances of getting genital herpes by avoiding vaginal, anal, or oral sex. If you can't do this, another option is to be in a monogamous relationship with a partner who does not have herpes.

You should also always use condoms correctly whenever you have sex. However, a condom may not completely cover all herpes sores.

Is there a cure for genital herpes?

There is no cure for genital herpes. However, there are medicines known as antivirals that can prevent or shorten outbreaks.

How is it treated?

People do not always need treatment for genital herpes. Sometimes, symptoms can clear up on their own, but the blisters can come back during an outbreak.

If you need treatment, your doctor may prescribe antiviral tablets, such as Valacyclovir (Valtrex), Acyclovir (Zovirax) and Famciclovir (Famvir) to speed up healing and reduce the severity of an episode.

Can I buy genital herpes treatment online?

You can get genital herpes medications online here at SpeedyHealth. All you have to do is complete a medical form online.

This will be reviewed by one of our doctors. If they approve, your medicine will be delivered to your chosen address in discreet packaging with speedy delivery.

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