Genital herpes

What is it?
A virus called herpes simplex causes genital herpes. There are two types of herpes simplex, type 1, and type 2. Type 1 is the main cause of cold sores around the nose and mouth, and type 2 is mainly responsible for genital herpes. However, the two types are very similar and it is possible for infection to spread from mouth to genital area, and vice versa. This could happen during oral sex.

What are the symptoms?
Similar symptoms happen in men and women. Initially there may be nothing to see but just a stinging, itching, or tingling in the genital or anal area. Later small blisters, containing clear fluid will appear, but they are not always visible, especially if they are in the vagina or cervix. When these burst, they leave small red ulcers, which can be very sore. If these are near the urethra (the tube where the urine comes out), passing urine can be painful. The ulcers usually heal up within two weeks.

Once the virus has entered the body, it enters the nerve fibres, and ends up in the nerve root. The virus normally stays there for the rest of the personís life, and doesnít do any harm. However, some people will get sores from time to time. Others will never actually get any sores, possibly because they have a resistance to the virus.

Are there any tests available?
Yes. A swab, wiped over any active sores, can then be cultured for the virus. This is best done within the first 24-48 hours after the appearance of the blisters. Tests for other sexually transmitted diseases can also be done.

What about treatment?
There is no long-term cure, but there is some medication available which may help to speed up healing of the sores. If you are going to take tablets, they must be started within 24-48 hours of the blisters developing.

There are things that you can do to help with the symptoms. Take paracetamol or another mild painkiller if the pain is bad. A cool shower can help soothe the sores. Otherwise, try wrapping ice cubes in a piece of cotton and place this on the sores. Donít put ice directly on the sores, and do not use the cloth for anything else. Local anaesthetic gels can help the discomfort as well. Wear loose clothing, and where practical leave the sores exposed to the air as much as possible, to help dry them out. Get plenty of rest during and after the attack, Eat plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables and try to cut back on cigarettes and alcohol.

Further episodes
Remember that not everyone gets further episodes. In fact, about half of people never have another episode. For those that do, the attacks are usually infrequent and milder than the first episode, clearing up within 3-5 days. Just like with cold sores, some things can trigger symptoms in some people. For women, it can be a particular time in the menstrual cycle. Friction from masturbation or sex can bring on an episode, and a lubricant like KY jelly may be useful. Tight clothing, and nylon or lycra underwear can be a trigger, as can sun-beds, and sunbathing. Some people find that they suffer a recurrence when they are tired and generally rundown.

Is it infective?
During an episode, the blisters and sores are highly contagious. You should avoid kissing if you or your partner have cold sores. Avoid any sex, including oral and anal sex if there are any sores present in the genital area. It is best not to try even with condoms or oral shields. Wash your hands with soap and water after touching the sores, and keep a towel and flannel for your use only.

It is safest to stick to these guidelines from the time that you feel an outbreak is coming on, to a few days after the sores have healed.

For these reasons, it is sensible to be open about herpes, and tell your partner, even though this might not be easy.

Other issues
All women over the age of 25 should have cervical smear tests every 3 years. Genital herpes has not been shown to cause cancer of the cervix in women, but other factors such as smoking and infection with genital warts are significant. Women who start to have sex at an early age are also thought to be at risk. Smear tests detect pre-cancerous changes in the cervix, at a stage when they can be completely cured.

You can get further information about herpes from your local genito-urinary clinic, which in Brighton is the Claud Nicol Clinic (tel: 01273 664721). They can usually give the results of a test quickly, and can help with advice concerning contacting partners.

Look in the phone book under genito-urinary clinic at your local hospital, or ask your local GP or pharmacist. You can also find them listed on

Further information

Playing Safely


International Herpes Management Forum

This article published on
28 November 2005

Next review date 11/1/2013


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