Are you worried you might have genital herpes? Have you been diagnosed with it and don’t know what to do? Are you anxious about how it could affect your life and are you scared about telling your partner?
The first thing is to try not to panic. There are plenty of people in the world living with genital herpes. We’re here for you. What you need is clear and actionable advice to understand how to live a normal life with genital herpes.
Genital herpes is an infection. It’s caused by a type of virus called a herpes simplex virus (HSV) that infects your skin on different parts of your body. You’ve probably already seen herpes infections, as when they infect the face they cause cold sores. Genital herpes is when a herpes infection infects the skin on and around the genitals. Cold sores are usually caused by the HSV-1 version of the virus, and genital herpes by the HSV-2 version, but both can cause genital herpes and cold sores.
These differ a bit from person to person, but in men, the symptoms are usually:
No, unfortunately when you get the infection you have it for life. There’s no way to permanently remove the herpes virus from your body, but there are medications that can help manage it. We’ll get to those.
When you have genital herpes, most of the time you have no symptoms, as the virus is dormant. But every now and then the virus reactivates and causes another outbreak of symptoms, more blisters, more itching and aching, and more pain when peeing. This is called a flare-up, or sometimes an outbreak.
Usually, the very first outbreak is the worst, and they get milder and less common over time. On average, outbreaks happen between one to five times a year, but they can happen more often in the first year of your infection.
The herpes virus spreads by skin-to-skin contact, such as having sex with someone with genital herpes, or even by touching someone’s infected skin and then touching your own genitals.
Yes, the virus which usually causes cold sores (HSV-1), can also cause genital herpes, so you can catch genital herpes if someone with cold sores gives you oral sex, or if they touch their face and then your genitals.
Yes. Because genital herpes is most often passed by sexual contact, by vaginal, anal, and oral sex, it’s counted as a sexually transmitted infection (STI), sometimes called a sexually transmitted disease (STD).
If you have genital herpes, it’s easy to feel lonely, that you’re one of the few people to have it, but that’s not the case. Genital herpes is more common than you may think. It’s thought to be one of the most common STIs, with almost half a billion people under the age of 50 worldwide estimated to have genital herpes.
Firstly, you can’t ignore it. If you have symptoms that you think are genital herpes you need to be seen by a healthcare professional to be tested to make sure it is genital herpes and not something else. You need to understand that if you have genital herpes there isn’t a cure, but there are treatments that can help you manage it, and there are actions you’ll need to take to make sure you don’t pass the virus on to someone else.
You should make an appointment at a sexual health clinic (you can see your doctor, but they’ll likely refer you to a sexual health clinic anyway). You should do so as soon as the blisters appear, as you can only be tested when the blisters are present. Find your nearest sexual health clinic.
The doctor or nurse at the clinic will ask you about your symptoms and your sexual history. They’ll take a look at the blisters and take a swab from them which can be tested to confirm if you have a herpes infection, or if they’re a symptom of something else. They’ll also give you advice on what to do now and how to talk to your partner.
Being diagnosed with genital herpes can come as a shock. You'll need to first treat the outbreak and think about telling your partner. Try the following advice
The first thing to do is treat the outbreak. When you’re diagnosed with genital herpes, you may be given an antiviral medicine to help clear the outbreak up faster and a cream to help with any pain. It can also help to clean the affected skin with warm, salty water to stop the sores from getting infected. Try applying an ice-pack wrapped in a flannel to help soothe any pain. You can even try pouring water over your genitals when you pee to reduce the pain too.
You’re at your most contagious when you have symptoms. As soon as you feel the first signs of an outbreak, usually a tingling in the affected areas, you should avoid sex. Don’t have sex while you have symptoms, even if you use a condom, as the condom likely won’t cover all the infected skin. Wait at least seven days after the symptoms have completely cleared up before you have sex again.
You’ll have to tell any sexual partners you have that you’ve got genital herpes. They have a right to know that having sex with you carries a risk that they could catch it too. There’s also a chance that an existing partner may already have genital herpes, but hasn’t realised, as the symptoms can take months to appear. Read more about how to speak to your partner about it.
Herpes is very contagious and easily transmitted. You can try the following to minimise your chances of passing it on:
Although medications won’t cure genital herpes, you can take treatments that can help you manage the infection. Valaciclovir and Valtrex are antiviral medications which can help limit the severity of outbreaks, clear them up quicker, and reduce the pain. They can even be taken to lessen the chances of an outbreak happening.
Genital herpes outbreaks are often caused by particular triggers, like getting stressed, overly tired, or by getting another illness like a cold. Although you can’t get rid of outbreaks entirely, you can limit the number you do have by working out what triggers them for you, and then avoiding these triggers. You might like to try some of the following:
Finding out you have genital herpes can be a shock. You might feel like your sex life is over, but that isn’t the case. As long as you’re careful and you manage your infection, you can still lead a normal life with genital herpes.