What is it?
Herpes simplex (HSV) is a virus you get from unprotected vaginal, anal or oral sex and other close genital contact. There are two types, HSV 1 and HSV 2; both can infect the genital and anal area and also the mouth and nose (cold sores).
It is highly contagious and can affect anyone who is sexually active. It is a virus, this means that even after treatment, the virus remains in your body and can cause outbreaks later. It is treated with antiviral medicines but there is no cure.
It is passed from one person to another through:
- Unprotected vaginal sex
- Unprotected anal sex
- Unprotected oral sex
- Close genital (vagina, penis and anus) contact
- Sharing sex toys
- Skin-to-skin contact during sex if the virus is active on the skin outside the area protected by a condom
- If a person with whitlows (herpes on the hand) touches a partner’s genital area
It cannot be passed on by kissing, hugging, sharing baths or towels, swimming pools, toilet seats or from sharing cups, plates or cutlery.
How will I know if I’m infected?
People with the herpes simplex virus may be unaware that they are carrying the virus as they have no visible signs or symptoms. If they do, symptoms include:
- Flu like symptoms: fever, headache, aches and pains
- Stinging, tingling or itching in the genital or anal area
- Small fluid-filled blisters appear anywhere in the genital or anal area, as well as the buttocks or tops of the thighs – these burst leaving small, red sores and may be very painful
- Pain when passing urine – due to the urine passing over the sores
- A discharge from the vagina or urethra (wee hole)
The first outbreak of sores can last for up to two to four weeks; they general heal within 5 to 10 days. The sores will firstly scab then heal without scarring.
Subsequent outbreaks may be less severe and will heal more quickly; your body will have produced antibodies to fight the infection. The following things can act as a trigger:
- Suppressed immune system e.g. feeling unwell or run down
- Different stages of your menstrual cycle
- Friction from masturbation or sex
- Sunbathing or sunbeds
- Close-fitting non-cotton underwear
- Drinking too much alcohol and smoking
The only way to be absolutely sure is to be tested
How can I get rid of it?
There is no cure but antiviral drugs help the symptoms.
A check-up for herpes can only be done when there are signs or symptoms; if you develop signs and symptoms it is best to have a check-up as soon as possible.
A doctor or nurse should be able to diagnose genital herpes by looking at them however they will need to take a swab of fluid from the blisters to confirm the infection. They will brush a swab (similar to a cotton bud) over the blisters. This may sting but should not be painful.
The swab will be sent to a laboratory for testing and result should be returned within one to two weeks.
There is no routine test for genital herpes in asymptomatic patients – those without symptoms…. but remember, if you’ve had unprotected sex, genital herpes is only one of the STIs that you could have contracted. Having no symptoms is not an excuse to not test for STIs. If you’ve had unprotected sex, don’t leave it to chance…., have a test as soon as you can.
Testing for genital herpes is free. Ask us for advice or contact your local sexual health services. See NHS Choices website for local services: www.nhs.uk
Cervical smear tests and routine blood tests will not detect herpes.