Advice for living with genital herpes
Dr. Aysha Butt is the Medical Director of FROM MARS, and is a GP Partner at Woodcote NHS Medical Practice.
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.
WHAT IS 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.
WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS OF GENITAL HERPES?
These differ a bit from person to person, but in men, the symptoms are usually:
- Blisters and sores, like cold sores, that form on and around the genitals, on and around the anus, and across the buttocks
- The blisters and the surrounding area can tingle, itch, ache and become painful
- You can feel pain when peeing
- You can also feel flu-like symptoms, like a fever, fatigue, aching muscles, and swollen glands, but this is most common with the first outbreak
CAN GENITAL HERPES BE CURED?
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.
WHAT IS A GENITAL HERPES FLAIR UP?
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.
HOW DO YOU CATCH GENITAL HERPES?
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.
CAN YOU CATCH GENITAL HERPES FROM COLD SORES?
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.
IS GENITAL HERPES A SEXUALLY TRANSMITTED INFECTION (STI)?
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).
HOW COMMON IS GENITAL HERPES?
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.
CAN I LIVE A NORMAL LIFE WITH 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.
HOW DO I GET TESTED FOR GENITAL HERPES?
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.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN I GET TESTED FOR GENITAL HERPES?
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.
WHAT TO DO IF YOU’RE DIAGNOSED WITH GENITAL HERPES?
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
TREATING THE GENITAL HERPES OUTBREAK
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.
DON’T HAVE SEX WHILST YOU HAVE YOUR OUTBREAK
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.
TELL YOUR PARTNER YOU HAVE GENITAL HERPES
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.
REDUCING THE RISKS OF TRANSMITTING GENITAL HERPES
Herpes is very contagious and easily transmitted. You can try the following to minimise your chances of passing it on:
- Don’t have any form of sexual contact, like foreplay, oral sex, vaginal and anal sex, when you have an outbreak
- Use condoms when you have sex when you haven’t got an outbreak, as the virus can still be transmitted in your semen
- Take an antiviral medication to deal with outbreaks faster or to prevent them from happening
- Know what triggers your outbreaks, and try to avoid these triggers
GENITAL HERPES MEDICATIONS
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.
WHAT TRIGGERS CAN CAUSE A GENITAL HERPES FLAIR UP?
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:
- Find ways to reduce and manage your stress. Meditation, going to the gym, watching football, playing video games might all be options. Find out whatever works to calm and relax you, as long as it’s healthy.
- Take care of yourself. Eat well, exercise, get enough sleep, avoid running yourself down as this makes it more likely you’ll have an outbreak.
- Use lubrication during sex. The friction from sex can irritate the skin and trigger outbreaks in some people, so using lubrication can help. Use a proper lubrication product though, not anything slippery and wet that you happen to find by the bed as some substances can irritate and damage the skin even more.
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.