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Genital herpes diagnosis and tests

What is genital herpes?

One in 10 sexually active Britons has genital herpes - but many don't know it because the symptoms can be mild or even absent. Genital herpes is usually spread by sexual contact and caused by the type 2 herpes virus (HSV-2). However the type 1 herpes virus (HSV-1), which more commonly causes cold sores, can also infect the genitals - usually through oral sex.

There's no cure for genital herpes. Once infected, you're infected for life.

Herpes is most often spread from active sores. But you don't have to have a sore to pass the virus to another person. Occasionally an infected person "sheds" infectious virus without obvious signs of an outbreak. 

If you have been exposed to the genital herpes virus, there are steps you can take to prevent spreading the infection to your sexual partner or partners.

The best way to prevent spread, short of abstinence, is to use a condom every time you have intercourse. Some studies indicate that treatment with genital herpes medication may also be able to help prevent spread of the infection from partner to partner among monogamous couples.

It's very important for women to avoid getting a new herpes infection while pregnant. If a woman is planning to have a baby, she should know whether she has genital herpes. It's rare for a mother to give herpes to her newborn unless she's having an outbreak of genital herpes during delivery. In this event a Caesarean section may be necessary.

If you think you may have been exposed to genital herpes via sexual contact, it's a good idea to seek advice at your local sexual health or genito-urinary medicine (GUM) clinic.

What does genital herpes testing involve?

When there's a genital herpes outbreak, a doctor can take a swab from the sores to test for herpes virus, but the swab should be taken within 48 hours of the outbreak. Even if your test comes back negative, you may still have genital herpes. It may only be possible to confirm the diagnosis if you have recurrent infections.

Genital herpes blood tests can show whether you have herpes and whether it's type 1 or type 2. They can't show where in the body the herpes is likely to break out. But if a test shows that you have herpes type 2, most likely your genitals have been infected.

Where do I get tested for genital herpes?

It's possible to get genital herpes tests free on the NHS from sexual health or genito-urinary medicine (GUM) clinics. Your doctor may also be able to give advice, but it is recommended that you try to get the test from a specialist at a GUM clinic as they are better qualified to make a diagnosis and have the facilities to do the appropriate tests.

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