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Genital herpes - symptoms

Genital herpes is a common sexually transmitted infection causing blisters on and around the genitals.

Genital herpes is caused by the herpes simplex virus, or HSV. Genital herpes often affects the 20-24 year old age group, with around 30,000 new cases diagnosed in sexual health clinics in the UK each year.

Although herpes blisters can be painful, many people don't know they have the condition because it may not produce any symptoms or symptoms may be mild.

A sexual partner can still pass on herpes even if they are not showing any obvious symptoms.

What happens in an HSV infection?

The herpes simplex virus (HSV) causes genital herpes. Most genital herpes is caused by infection of herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2).

Herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) is more often the cause of cold sores, but it can also be a cause of genital herpes.

Once the virus enters through the skin, it travels along nerve paths. It may become dormant (inactive) in the nerves and remain there indefinitely.

From time to time, the virus may become active. When that happens, the virus travels back along the nerve path to the surface of the skin, where additional virus is shed.

At this point the virus may cause an outbreak of symptoms, or it may remain undetected.

In either case, the active virus is easily passed from one partner to another through sexual contact. Even using a condom or a dam may not protect the uninfected partner. The virus can be present on skin that remains uncovered.

The number of recurrences or outbreaks a person can have may vary.

What are the symptoms of genital herpes?

You may never notice symptoms from an HSV infection. On the other hand, you might notice symptoms within a few days to a couple of weeks after the initial contact. Or you might not have an initial outbreak of symptoms until months or even years after becoming infected.

When symptoms occur soon after a person is infected, they tend to be more severe. They may start as small blisters that eventually break open and produce raw, painful sores that scab and heal over within a few weeks. The blisters and sores may be accompanied by flu-like symptoms with fever and swollen glands.

Any of the following symptoms of a genital HSV infection can occur in a man or a woman:

  • Cracked, raw, or red areas around your genitals or anal region without pain, itching or tingling
  • Itching or tingling around your genitals or your anal region
  • Small blisters that break open and cause painful sores. These may be on or around your genitals, the penis or vagina, or on the buttocks, thighs, or rectal area. More rarely, blisters may occur inside the urethra -- the tube urine passes through on its way out of your body.
  • Pain from urine passing over the sores - this is especially a problem in women.
  • Headaches
  • Backaches
  • Flu-like symptoms, including fever, swollen glands and fatigue

Genital herpes is not the only condition that can produce these symptoms. The only way to know whether they are the result of HSV or another condition is to be checked by a health care professional.

Genital herpes is diagnosed with a physical examination and may be confirmed with a swab test, which is sent off to a laboratory for analysis.

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