A Look at the Signs and Symptoms of Genital Herpes

Genital herpes is a highly contagious STD

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Genital herpes is spread through direct contact with someone else who is infected. Herpes is caused by the herpes simplex virus (HCV). It is spread through sexual contact i.e. penetrative and oral sex. Blisters or sores do not have to be present for the virus to be passed on, but when they are, transmission of genital herpes is much more likely as it is highly contagious.

People can re-infect themselves by touching an active herpes sore then scratching or rubbing another area of broken skin elsewhere on the body. The first attack of genital herpes is often the most severe.

After the first attack, the virus hides away in the nerve fibers causing no symptoms. The disease can then reoccur often following stress on the immune system, such as following illness, emotional or physical stress. Some people never experience another outbreak. Pain can occur prior to a recurrent outbreak of genital herpes. This is due to inflammation and irritation of the nerves in the infected area. These warning signs of another outbreak mean that you are very contagious (even though you have no sores). Herpes has spread quickly because people do not realize or do not know when their herpes is active and pass the disease on to others.


There are five types of HCV, but two types, type 1 and type 2, can both cause genital herpes and are considered to be sexually transmitted:

  • Type 1- commonly infects the lips and causes cold sores but it can also cause genital herpes​
  • Type 2- commonly responsible for causing genital herpes. The genital sores caused by both viruses look the same.

Affected Areas

Infection can occur internally and externally. Areas commonly affected are the penis, around the anal opening, and on the buttocks or thighs.

In women, the sores occur in the vaginal area, around the buttocks, anal opening and the thighs.


In the USA it is estimated that as many as 50 million Americans are infected with genital herpes. There are 1 million new infections each year. 80-90% of people infected with genital herpes fail to recognize herpes symptoms or have no symptoms at all. The largest increase has occurred in Caucasians between the age of 12 and 19 years. Genital herpes is more common in women. Men who have sex with men have a higher incidence of HSV-2 infection than heterosexual men.

In the UK more than 15,000 new cases of genital herpes diagnosed each year in the UK.
In Australia, it has been estimated that approximately 1 in 6 people in Australia has had a history of genital herpes outbreaks at some time.


Here are the signs and symptoms of genital herpes:

  • Internal and external blisters and sores- small (2-5 mm), fluid-filled lesions, often occur in clusters.
  • Itching or burning feeling in the genital or anal area.
  • Pain in the legs, buttocks, or genital area.
  • Enlarged and painful lymph glands.
  • Pain passing urine.
  • there may be flu-like symptoms.
  • Nausea.
  • Unexplained urethral discharge in men.
  • Women may have a vaginal discharge.
  • Symptoms disappear after 10 - 21 days. Recurrent attacks usually affect the same area but are less severe.
  • The first attack is usually the most severe.


Although there is no cure for genital herpes your doctor may prescribe one of three antiviral medicines to treat and help prevent future episodes of genital herpes. Acyclovir (Zovirax), Famciclovir (Famvir) or Valacyclovir (Valtrex) are taken daily to assist with the outbreaks, to help prevent the virus replicating and to reduce recurrence. The Food and Drug Administration approved Valtrex for use in preventing transmission of genital herpes.

Take analgesics (Painkillers) to control pain. Bath in cool water, wear loose fitting clothing, apply an ice pack, drink plenty of water; they all help relieve symptoms.


During active periods of herpes avoid intimate sexual contact and oral and penetrative sex. Practising safer sex helps reduce the risk of infection. Condoms do not prevent the spread of the virus 100% of the time but they do offer do some protection. Sex partners should be examined and tested as soon as symptoms of primary herpes appear. Sores should be kept clean and dry. You must wash your hands thoroughly after applying treatment or touching the infected area.