Getting tested for genital herpes
Dr. Aysha Butt is the Medical Director of FROM MARS, and is a GP Partner at Woodcote NHS Medical Practice.
Genital herpes. Wow. Sounds scary doesn’t it.
Truth is, it doesn’t have to be. Herpes infections are very common and genital herpes probably sounds worse than it really is. But that doesn’t mean you don’t need to take it seriously. To make sure you know exactly what you could be dealing with, here we’ll run through what it is, how to test for genital herpes, and we’ll even give you some advice on living with it.
What is genital herpes and what does genital herpes look like?
Genital herpes is an infection caused by a herpes simplex virus (HSV). The virus infects your skin and can do so on different parts of your body. When it does so on and around your genitals, it’s called genital herpes.
Most of the time the virus lies dormant in your body. But every now and again it activates and causes an outbreak of genital herpes symptoms like:
- Blisters on the skin on and around your genitals, and on your anus and buttocks. The blisters can burst to become open sores that leak fluid
- Tingling, itching, or burning around the infected skin
- Pain when you pee
- Flu-like symptoms (usually only the first time you have an outbreak)
Genital herpes is caught by coming into skin-to-skin contact with someone who has the infection. This happens most often through sex. That means that genital herpes is classed as a sexually transmitted infection (STI).
Herpes infections are widespread and common. It’s thought that half a billion people worldwide under the age of 50 are infected by the herpes viruses that cause genital herpes.
Who should get tested for genital herpes?
You should get tested if you have any genital herpes symptoms, particularly the blisters and sores. You need to understand what’s causing these sores. If they are genital herpes, or something else.
Make sure you still get tested even if you haven’t had sex for a while, as it can take months or even years for symptoms to emerge after you’ve been infected by a herpes virus.
What if you’d had sex with someone with genital herpes, but you don’t have any symptoms?
You only need to get tested if you have symptoms.
Most people who have an HSV infection never show any symptoms. You may have caught a herpes virus from a sexual partner, you may have the virus living inside you, but if you don’t have symptoms, you don’t need to get tested.
This might sound a bit weird, but there are two reasons why. One, most tests for genital herpes can only be done if you have symptoms. Two, there’s no cure for genital herpes and no treatments for people who don’t have symptoms. You can get effective genital herpes treatments that can reduce how often you have outbreaks, and how serious they are, but they’re only useful if you have symptoms.
Where should I go to get tested for genital herpes?
The NHS advises that you should go straight to a sexual health clinic. You could go to your GP, but the chances are they’ll refer you to a sexual health clinic anyway.
A lot of sexual health clinics offer a walk-in service too, with no appointment needed. You’ll likely get your test results faster if you go straight to a clinic.
How do sexual health clinics test for genital herpes?
You’ll be seen by either a doctor or a nurse. They’ll use a cotton swab to take a sample of the fluid from one or more of your blisters. This swab is then tested for the presence of a herpes virus.
The doctor or nurse will also ask you about other symptoms you’ve had, and about your sexual history. Remember that everything you say will be confidential, so always be honest.
How long you’ll have to wait for your results can vary. Genital herpes test results times can differ by clinic, but it usually takes between a week and two weeks, but the doctor or nurse who sees you can advise you on this.
Are there other genital herpes tests?
You can get a blood test for herpes infections. This is usually only offered by private clinics. You’ll have to pay, but you may get results faster.
These aren’t strictly genital herpes blood tests either. A blood test can tell you if you have a herpes infection, but it can’t tell you where you have it. Without an outbreak of blisters, you won’t know if you have genital herpes or an infection somewhere else, like oral herpes (cold sores).
You can also have a urine test for the presence of herpes, but only when you have visible symptoms.
Your GP can also diagnose genital herpes by examining your blisters and sores, but they’ll likely refer you to a sexual health clinic for testing to make sure.
Can a urine test detect herpes?
Yes. You can have your urine tested for genital herpes if you have visible symptoms, like blisters and sores. NHS sexual health clinics usually don’t test your urine though. They take a sample of the fluid from your sores. You can get a urine test for herpes at private clinics.
How accurate is a herpes blood test?
Any test can give inaccurate results, either a false positive (the test says you have herpes when you don’t) or a false negative (the test says you don’t have herpes when you do). The accuracy of herpes blood tests is generally above 90%. A blood test can’t tell you what type of herpes you have though (i.e. genital herpes or oral herpes), just that you have herpes or not. A test at a NHS sexual health clinic may be more suitable.
What can be mistaken for herpes?
There are other conditions that can be mistaken for herpes, particularly those that give you spots, blisters, or other skin lesions. These can include contact dermatitis, scabies, or even ingrown hairs that cause spots and infections. If you think you have genital herpes, or if you have anything that looks like a blister down there, you should get yourself tested to find out for sure.
Would I know if I had herpes?
Not necessarily. Plenty of people get a herpes infection but never have any outbreaks of symptoms. You may have a herpes infection and not know about it.
How is genital herpes treated?
As we mentioned, genital herpes can’t be cured. If you have a HSV infection, it’s with you for life.
But there are actions you can take to help you deal with the symptoms when you have an outbreak, like:
- Wearing loose, comfortable clothing
- Taking pain killers if you have pain
- Applying an ice pack wrapped in a cloth to help soothe pain
- Keeping the affected area clean and washing with salt water to reduce the chances of blisters becoming infected
- Applying Vaseline to the blisters to help them heal and to reduce any pain
- Pouring water over your genitals when you pee to ease pain
Whilst the above can help, if you want to treat the symptoms of genital herpes more effectively, you can try a prescription medication like valaciclovir:
Valaciclovir genital herpes medication
Valaciclovir (same active ingredient as Valtrex) is a prescription antiviral medication that can be taken to treat genital herpes outbreaks. It’s taken as a pill, usually twice per day. If you take it when you see the first signs of an outbreak, it can shorten it or even stop it completely.
How to live with genital herpes?
Herpes infections don’t cause any serious health problems in healthy adults. Most of the time the herpes virus lies dormant. You won’t have any symptoms and you can live your life as usual, with just a few changes.
When you have an outbreak of symptoms, you should treat them in whatever way works for you. Try not to touch the affected skin if you don’t have to and wash your hands often to avoid spreading the virus on your fingers.
Sex and genital herpes
You shouldn’t have any kind of sexual contact when you have an outbreak, as this is when you’re most contagious. Any skin-to-skin contact could transmit the virus to a partner. You can even transmit it through oral sex and by any form of touching if you get the virus on your fingers.
When you don’t have an outbreak, you should use a condom and an oral dam when you have sex. It’s unlikely you’ll pass the virus by skin-to-skin contact when you don’t have an outbreak, but there is a chance you can pass it through your bodily fluids, like saliva and semen.
For more tips and advice check out our post on living with genital herpes.
The bottom line
If you think you have genital herpes, and if you have symptoms, get yourself to a sexual health clinic to get tested.
Remember that if you do have genital herpes, you’re not alone, as it’s more common than you think. You can also treat outbreaks of genital herpes with valaciclovir and you can go about your usual daily life with only a few adjustments.