Unexplained blisters on your penis or vagina? It could be a number of things, but if the sores are red and inflamed and you have been experiencing flu-like symptoms, you might have genital herpes.
Genital herpes is a common sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by the herpes simplex virus. There are actually two strains of the herpes simplex virus (HSV), one of which causes cold sores on the face, while the other causes genital herpes:
• Herpes simplex virus type 1
HSV-1 causes cold sores and is thought to affect about 67 per cent of the population.
• Herpes simplex virus type 2
HSV-2 causes genital herpes and infects about 11 per cent of the population.
There is some crossover between the two types, so oral sex can transmit HSV-1 to the genitals or HSV-2 to the lips.
Genital herpes symptoms
The first symptom of genital herpes is usually an inflammation of the skin in the genital or anal area, which may sting, have a tingling sensation or you may experience some itching.
'Genital herpes can appear on the penis, scrotum, groin and thighs, buttocks and around the anus,' says Karin O’Sullivan, clinical lead at sexual health charity FPA. 'More rarely, blisters may also occur inside the urethra (where you pass urine from).'
You can also be a carrier of the HSV-2 and experience no symptoms whatsoever. 'Many people won’t have any visible signs or symptoms at all, or won’t be aware of them,' says O’Sullivan. 'While some people may feel generally unwell.'
⚠️ It is important to note that you may not have any symptoms of herpes for weeks or even years after you have been infected with the herpes virus.
Signs and symptoms of recurrent outbreaks are usually milder than with the first outbreak and clear up more quickly - usually in about a week.
The most common genital herpes symptoms may include the following, as outlined by O’Sullivan:
• Flu-like symptoms
You may experience flue-like symptoms including fever, tiredness, headache and swollen glands, particularly during the initial outbreak.
• Aches and pains
Aches and pains in the lower back and down the legs or in the groin are common genital herpes symptoms.
• Genital tingling or itching
Discomfort in the genital or anal area including stinging, tingling or itching.
Discharge from the vagina or urethra are also a common genital herpes symptom.
• Red blisters
The most obvious symptom of genital herpes is small, fluid-filled blisters which burst within a day or two and leave small, red sores that can be very painful, especially when passing urine.
• Painful sores
Alongside the blisters, sores could appear in the genital or anal area, around the tops of your thighs or on the buttocks.
How is genital herpes diagnosed?
Genital herpes can only be diagnosed by physically examining the blisters. Your doctor will also take a swab of the fluid in the blisters or sores to test for the herpes simplex virus.
'In many cases, a doctor or nurse may be able to make a diagnosis by looking at the affected skin,' says O’Sullivan.
'They’ll want to confirm this by taking a swab of fluid from the infected area. There’s a specific blood test that can be done to look for antibodies to the virus, but this isn’t used as a routine test and may not be reliable.'
How is genital herpes treated?
Treatment may not be necessary, as a genital herpes outbreak can clear up on its own, although there is no cure for this virus. However starting a course of antiviral tablets may help.
'The aim of treatment is to relieve pain, and to prevent the virus from multiplying,' says O’Sullivan. 'This can involve a course of antiviral tablets, as herpes is caused by a virus and not bacteria; antibiotics won’t help.'
Taking a five-day course of antiviral tablets as soon as the symptoms appear (within five days preferably) will help stop the symptoms getting worse, reduce the duration of the infection and decrease the risk of passing the virus on to someone.
💡 If you suffer from repeated outbreaks of genital herpes (usually more than 6 times in a year) your doctor may prescribe you a long course of antiviral medicine, for 6 to 12 months.
What triggers a genital herpes outbreak?
People with the herpes simplex virus can go through periods with no symptoms when the virus sits dormant. However the virus can be reactivated and the following can trigger an outbreak:
- Being run down and fatigued.
- Physical and emotional stress.
- Outbreaks can also occur at different times in the menstrual cycle.
- Having a condition that affects the body’s immune system such as HIV infection.
- Trauma or friction to the affected area - this can include sex or masturbation, which lubricants could help with.
- Taking medication that suppress the body’s immune system, such as chemotherapy or steroids.
- Irritation to the affected skin area such as ultraviolet light from sunbathing or using sun beds.
- Tight clothing including nylon or lycra underwear may also bring on an outbreak.
- Drinking alcohol or smoking might also trigger an outbreak in some people.
Can you prevent genital herpes?
Genital herpes is passed on by skin-to-skin contact during vaginal, oral or anal sex, or by sharing sex toys. You can get genital herpes even if there are no visible sores or blisters, and once you have the virus, there is no cure.
'Herpes is more likely to be passed on just before, during or straight after an outbreak, as herpes blisters and sores are highly infectious,' says O’Sullivan.
The best way to decrease the risk of getting the herpes virus is to use a condom correctly every time you have sex, even when there are no blisters or sores.
'Using condoms or dams can help to protect against STIs, but herpes can also be passed on by skin-to-skin contact with the affected area, so it’s strongly recommended that you don’t have sex during this time,' adds O’Sullivan. 'This includes direct genital contact or skin-to-skin contact with the affected area, and doesn’t have to be penetrative sex.
'It can also be passed on if oral sex is given by someone who has a cold sore or is just about to get one, or if someone with an active herpes sore on their hand touches a partner’s genitals.'
Genital herpes treatment tips
The treatment you can buy for facial cold sores is not suitable for genital herpes, but there are several things you can use to ease the discomfort and speed up the healing process, including the following:
✔️ Avoid touching the blisters as much as possible and wear loose fitting underwear (preferably cotton) to reduce irritation of the blisters.
✔️ Applying a little dab of petroleum jelly or Sudocrem will also help soothe the blisters.
✔️ Be aware that petroleum jelly, such as Vaseline, can damage latex (rubber) condoms, diaphragms and caps, making them less effective.
✔️ Keep the blisters clean using just warm water to prevent infection.
✔️ Make sure you wash your hands carefully after touching the blisters, especially if you wear contact lenses because the herpes virus can infect the eyes.
✔️ Take pain relieving drugs if you need to. Your doctor may prescribe a cream containing an anaesthetic if you are experiencing pain when you pass urine.
✔️ Local anaesthetic ointment such as lidocaine, can also be bought from a pharmacy.
✔️ Gently bathing the area with cotton wool and a warm salt water solution, or a cool shower can sooth the sores.
✔️ If peeing is painful then urinate in a warm bath or shower.
✔️ Drinking extra fluids, such as water, and wearing loose clothing can also help.
Sexual health services
If you are concerned you might have genital herpes of any type of sexually transmitted infection, visit your GP or get a confidential opinion from your local sexual health clinic. Don't be embarrassed, they are trained specialists who are used to dealing with sexual health concerns.
To visit a sexual health clinic you don't need a referral letter from your GP, but we recommend contacting the clinic to find out their opening hours, and to check if you need an appointment.
- Find a sexual health clinic near you.
- Try Brook's Find a Service tool
- Find contraceptive services near you.
- Call the national sexual health line 0300 123 7123.
- Call Worth Talking About on 0300 123 2930 (for under-18s).
Last updated: 29-10-19
You Might Also Like