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Genital herpes basics

What is genital herpes?

Genital herpes is a common sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV), of which there are 2 types. In most cases genital herpes is caused by the type 1 herpes virus (HSV-1). Type 1 (HSV-1) also usually causes oral herpes, an infection of the lips ( cold sores) and mouth.

What is HSV?

HSV lives in the nerves. When it's active, it travels to the surface of the infected area (skin or mucous membrane) and makes copies of itself. This is called 'shedding' because these new virus cells can at this time rub off onto another person. Then the virus travels back down the nerve to a ganglion - mass of nerve tissue - usually at the base of the spine, where it lies dormant for a while.

Who gets genital herpes?

Around 32,000 new cases of genital herpes are diagnosed in England each year.

However, at least 8 out of 10 people with genital herpes won't know they have it because they have not noticed any symptoms.

It is most common in adults aged 20 to 24 years old.

More women than men are infected. One reason may be that the virus can infect a woman's genitals more easily than it can a man's. The more sex partners people have, the more common it is too.

Genital herpes symptoms

Genital herpes causes blisters on and around the genitals.

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.

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 since the virus can be present on skin that remains uncovered.

The number of recurrences or outbreaks experienced varies from person to person.

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 the genitals or anal region without pain, itching or tingling.
  • Itching or tingling around the 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. This could be your GP or a sexual health clinic.

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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