Genital herpes is a common sexually transmissible infection (STI) caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV1 or HSV2). The herpes virus can be spread during vaginal, oral or anal sex. Cold sores on the mouth can cause genital infection during oral sex for those who do not already have the cold sore virus. Pregnant women with genital herpes should discuss this with their doctor.
Genital herpes is a common sexually transmissible infection (STI) caused by the herpes simplex virus. There are two forms of the herpes simplex virus – HSV1 and HSV2. HSV1 more commonly occurs around the mouth but can also occur on the genitals. HSV2 occurs mainly on and around the genital area.
It is estimated that about one in eight people have the virus that causes genital herpes and about 80 per cent of those infected may be unaware they have this infection. There is no cure for genital herpes but medication can help manage and reduce the severity of symptoms and also reduce the frequency of recurrences.
Many people feel great anxiety about herpes but it is important to remember it only affects the skin for relatively short periods of time.
Pregnant women with genital herpes should discuss this with their doctor, as very rarely herpes infection can be transmitted to the baby during delivery, leading to serious illness.
The virus is spread by skin-to-skin contact
The herpes virus is spread by skin-to-skin contact and can be transmitted during vaginal, oral or anal sex. The infection can occur anywhere on the genitals, in areas around the groin or pubic area, and in or around the anus. Cold sores on the mouth can cause genital infection during oral sex for those who do not already have the cold sore virus.
The virus can be spread when there is an episode (when there is a sore, blister, ulcer or skin split) or between episodes (when there is no sore, blister, ulcer or skin split present). This is called viral shedding. During viral shedding, you may not be aware that the virus is on the skin surface and can be spread through genital skin-to-skin contact or from the mouth or face to genital skin during contact.
Many people who have genital herpes are not aware they have the infection because they may not have any symptoms.
The first episode of herpes can cause considerable pain and distress. Symptoms associated with the first episode of genital herpes may include:
- Flu-like symptoms – such as feeling unwell, headaches and pains in the back and legs
- Small blisters around the genitals – these break open to form shallow, painful ulcers, which scab over and heal after one to two weeks
- Small cracks in the skin
- Redness or a distinct rash.
- Some people also have considerable pain and swelling in the genital area and may have additional pain and difficulty passing urine.
Recurrences are usually less painful and shorter in duration than the first episode. Over time, recurrent episodes usually become less frequent and may eventually stop altogether. Infections caused by HSV1 are less likely to recur in the genital area than infections caused by HSV2.
Recurrences may be triggered by:
- Sexual activity
- General illness.
Diagnosing herpes infection
If you think you have herpes, your doctor will need to take a swab from the affected area to confirm the diagnosis. In certain circumstances, a blood test is performed to assist with the diagnosis. You should discuss this with your doctor.
There are no medications to rid your body of the herpes virus. Treatment is aimed at easing symptoms and reducing the frequency of recurrences. Symptoms can be improved by:
- Salt baths
- Pain-relieving medicines – such as paracetamol
- Antiviral drugs – such as acyclovir, famciclovir and valaciclovir. These drugs can reduce the severity of an attack if taken early enough (preferably within three days of symptoms appearing).
If you have frequent episodes, antiviral medications may be taken daily to reduce the likelihood of symptoms.
Preventing the spread of herpes
The best protection against STIs is to always use barrier protection such as condoms, female condoms and dams (a thin piece of latex placed over the anal or vulval area during oral sex). Because herpes is spread by skin to skin contact condoms will reduce the risk of transmission but not protect sexual partners completely. Remember that herpes transmission can occur when symptoms are present (such as a sore or blister), but may also occur even if there are no genital symptoms.
Condoms for men can be bought from supermarkets, pharmacists and other outlets. Female condoms and dams are available through Family Planning Victoria and may be available from selected shops. Latex free condoms are also available from some outlets. Male condoms and lubricant are available free from the Melbourne Sexual Health Centre, along with female condoms on request.
For those who have frequent episodes of genital herpes, antiviral medication, taken daily, helps to reduce transmission of herpes to a sexual partner.
If you become pregnant after developing genital herpes
Very rarely herpes infection may be transmitted to the baby during delivery, leading to serious illness. Although this is not common, let your midwife or obstetrician know if you have had a diagnosis of genital herpes.
Support and advice
If you have just found out you have genital herpes, you may feel shocked and may have a lot of questions. It may help you to gather as much information as you can about herpes. This can help you to make fully informed decisions about your treatment, safe sex and preventing further recurrences. Talking to a counsellor about your concerns may also help.
Where to get help
- Melbourne Sexual Health Centre Tel. (03) 9341 6200 or 1800 032 017 or TTY (for the hearing impaired) (03) 9347 8619
- Your doctor
- NURSE-ON-CALL Tel. 1300 60 60 24 – for expert health information and advice (24 hours, 7 days)
- Your school nurse or school welfare coordinator
- Youth worker, welfare worker or social worker
- Your local community health centre
- The Centre Clinic, St Kilda Tel. (03) 9525 5866
- Family Planning Victoria Tel. (03) 9257 0100 or 1800 013 952
- The Action Centre (for young people less than 25 years) Tel. (03) 9654 4766 or 1800 013 952
- The Annexe Sexual Health Clinic Ballarat Tel. (03) 5338 4500
- BBV/STI Clinic Bendigo Tel. (03) 5434 4330
- Geelong Sexual Health Clinic Tel. (03) 5226 7254
- STD/AIDS Clinic Traralgon Tel. (03) 5173 8111
Things to remember
- Genital herpes can be spread by vaginal, oral or anal sex.
- Recurrences of genital herpes usually become less frequent and painful over time.
- There is no cure for herpes, but treatment helps ease symptoms and prevent recurrences.
- Pregnant women with genital herpes should discuss this with their doctor.
You might also be interested in:
- Genital warts.
- Infections - bacterial and viral.
- Sexually transmissible infections.
- Sexually transmissible infections - avoid the risk.
- Sexually transmissible infections - signs and symptoms.
- Vulval conditions.
Want to know more?
Go to More information for support groups, related links and references.
This page has been produced in consultation with and approved by:
(Logo links to further information)
Melbourne Sexual Health Centre
Fact sheet currently being reviewed.
Last reviewed: March 2012
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