What is genital herpes?
As many as 1 in 8 sexually active Australian adults have genital herpes.
Genital herpes can cause outbreaks of blisters or sores on the genitals and anus. Once infected, you can continue to have episodes of symptoms throughout your life.
If you think you have genital herpes, it is important to see a doctor as soon as possible to confirm the diagnosis and start treatment.
What are the symptoms of genital herpes?
Most people infected with genital herpes have no symptoms, but some people can experience:
- stinging or tingling in the genital area
- small blisters on the genital area that develop into small painful red sores
- sores that look like a rash or cracked skin on the genitals
- difficulty passing urine
The sores can appear on the parts of the skin that have contact with a partner during sex: the penis in men and the labia, clitoris and vulva in women. It is also possible to have sores in the anus or on the buttocks and inner thighs.
The first episode of infection can also have flu-like symptoms such as:
After the first episode, the virus remains dormant (sleeping) in your body for the rest of your life, which means you can experience recurrent episodes (outbreaks) of sores and blisters.
Recurrent episodes are usually milder, shorter and less frequent over time. They are more likely to occur when your immune system is weak, due to illness, tiredness or stress.
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What are the causes of genital herpes?
Genital herpes is spread by skin-to-skin contact with someone who has the HSV virus, usually during genital or oral sex. It can also be spread through kissing, foreplay or non-penetrative sex.
There are 2 types of HSV, both viruses can affect either the lips, mouth, genital or anal areas, however:
- HSV1 commonly causes cold sores on the lips or face.
- HSV2 causes most genital herpes.
The HSV virus is most easily spread when there are blisters or sores, but it can still be passed even if a person has no current blisters or sores or other symptoms.
You cannot get genital herpes from things like hugging, swimming pools or toilet seats.
How is genital herpes diagnosed?
Your doctor will take a swab from a blister or sore to check for herpes simplex virus. It is best if the blister is less than 4 days old.
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How is genital herpes treated?
There is no cure for genital herpes. However, it is possible to reduce the symptoms using anti-viral medicine. This is most effective when started within 72 hours of the first symptoms.
Medicines can help control outbreaks if they are frequent or severe. Anti-viral medicine can reduce the risk from passing the virus on to a sexual partner.
The symptoms can also be helped by:
- gently bathing the area with a warm salt solution (1 teaspoon to 2 cups water, or 1 cup of salt in a bath)
- pain medicine, such as paracetamol or ibuprofen
- local anaesthetic ointment or cream
- urinating (weeing) while sitting in a warm bath, if urination is painful
Living with genital herpes
If you have genital herpes, it is important to always use condoms and dental dams when having sex, even when you have no symptoms. A dental dam is a square of thin latex that can be placed over the vulva or anal area during oral sex. It is safest to avoid sex when you have blisters, sores or symptoms.
It is also important to tell your sexual partners that you have genital herpes. Your doctor can help you decide who to tell and how to tell them.
What if I am pregnant?
It is important to tell your obstetrician that you or a partner have had genital herpes, so that they can monitor you for symptoms and manage your pregnancy safely. There is a risk you can pass the virus on to your baby if you have a vaginal delivery during a first attack of genital herpes. If this happens you may be recommended to have a caesarean delivery.
Can genital herpes be prevented?
It is safest to:
- always use condoms and dental dams, even when there are no sores or blisters present
- avoid sex when there are sores or blisters present — you are most infectious at this time
- avoid sex with someone who has any blisters, sores or other symptoms of genital herpes
- avoid oral sex when there is any sign of a cold sore
Resources and support
To learn more about genital herpes contact your doctor, sexual health clinic or call healthdirect on 1800 022 222 (known as NURSE-ON-CALL in Victoria).
You can also visit Family Planning NSW.
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Last reviewed: March 2021