Genital herpes is a common viral infection with the herpes simplex virus that causes painful blisters on the genitals and surrounding areas. The infection is spread by intimate contact and can affect any part of the body with mucous membranes, such as the mouth. Genital herpes can only be diagnosed when there are symptoms, so it is important to get tested right away. Genital herpes is a chronic (long-term) condition but there are treatments available to reduce the frequency and severity of outbreaks.  The initial symptoms of herpes infection are:

  • small blisters that burst to leave red, open sores around your genitals, thighs and buttocks
  • blisters and ulcers on the cervix (lower part of the womb) in women
  • vaginal discharge in women
  • pain when you pass urine
  • a general feeling of being unwell, with aches, pains and flu-like symptoms

What are the risk factors?

Risk factors for genital herpes include:

  • Multiple sexual partners or frequent changing of sexual partners in the past year
  • Becoming sexually active at a young age
  • Having other sexually transmitted infections

What are the symptoms?

Genital herpes symptoms are usually the most severe during the first outbreak, but as the body develops antibodies, they decrease in frequency and severity. Around half of the people diagnosed with genital herpes only experience symptoms once. The symptoms of genital herpes for the first time include:

  • small blisters that burst to leave red, open sores around your genitals, rectum, thighs and buttocks
  • blisters and ulcers on the cervix (lower part of the womb) in women
  • vaginal discharge in women
  • pain when you pass urine
  • a general feeling of being unwell, with aches, pains and flu-like symptoms

These symptoms may last up to 20 days, but do not usually leave any scars.

Because genital herpes is a chronic (long-term) condition, some people will continue to have outbreaks throughout their lives. As the body develops antibodies to fight the infection, however, the outbreaks become less frequent and less severe. Outbreaks are usually more mild and heal faster than the initial infection. Recurring outbreak symptoms may include:

  • a tingling, burning or itching sensation around your genitals, and sometimes down your leg, before blisters appear
  • painful red blisters that soon burst to leave sores around your genitals, rectum (back passage), thighs and buttocks
  • blisters and ulcers on the cervix (lower part of the womb) in women

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Diagnosis

Genital herpes is much easier to diagnose when there are symptoms. Therefore, it is important to get tested as soon as possible. Tests for herpes usually involve a swab of fluid from the blister, which is then tested for the herpes simplex virus. Even if test results come back negative, it is still possible you have genital herpes. In this case, another outbreak will confirm the diagnosis.

Treatment

There is no cure for genital herpes, but there are medications that can help with managing it. One of these antiviral drugs, Aciclovir, is most commonly used to reduce the severity of the first outbreak. It works by preventing the virus from multiplying, reducing the length and severity of the outbreak. Doctors are unlikely to prescribe Aciclovir, however, if the outbreak is mild or has mostly healed by the time they see the patient. Most people are able to manage outbreaks with lifestyle changes and other at-home care.

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