Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted infection often referred to simply as “herpes”. It is caused by the herpes simplex virus, which also causes cold sores.
In the UK, genital herpes is the fourth most common sexually transmitted infection, after chlamydia, genital warts and gonorrhoea. Though outbreaks of symptoms can be treated, genital herpes is incurable. Once you have contracted the virus, it will lay dormant in your system, causing recurrent episodes of symptoms when it is triggered by things like illness and stress.
Herpes is more serious for women than men, because it can cause problems in pregnancy. However it only poses a real threat if you develop the infection whilst pregnant. If you already have herpes and you later become pregnant, the risk posed to your baby is extremely low. Developing herpes when you are pregnant can cause miscarriage or lead to the infection passing onto your child.
To stay safe, familiarise yourself with genital herpes symptoms and avoid any sexual activity with someone who might be infected. This is particularly important if you are already pregnant.
Herpes in Women: The Primary Symptoms
Genital herpes is spread through skin-to-skin contact. This means that it can be spread through vaginal, anal and oral sex. Once you have been exposed to the virus, you will most likely not experience any symptoms for a few weeks or months.
When a primary outbreak does occur, you will develop small, painful blisters around the genitals. In women, these blisters can occur in the following places:
Another symptom of a primary herpes outbreak in women is unusual vaginal discharge. Pain when urinating is also common, as are flu-like symptoms.
Recurring Episodes of Herpes
After a primary episode, the herpes virus will lie dormant in your system before causing another period of symptoms. Further episodes tend to be shorter and less severe than the first outbreak. This is because your immune system develops antibodies to fight the infection over time.
When you experience a recurring episode of herpes, it will normally begin with a tingling, burning or itching sensation in the affected area. After this the blisters will develop again, however they should not last as long or be as severe.
Treatment for herpes must begin with a diagnosis. As soon as you notice the symptoms listed above, you should go to your GP or to a sexual health clinic. The doctor or nurse will examine your blisters and take a swab to confirm the presence of the herpes virus.
It is likely that you will then be prescribed an antiviral medicine called aciclovir. This should normally be taken for five days and should help to shorten the length of the outbreak by a few days.
For future outbreaks of herpes, you can start taking aciclovir as soon as you start to experience symptoms (i.e. a tingling or burning sensation in the affected area). If you experience outbreaks more than six times a year you can get a prescription for herpes suppression treatment, which involves taking aciclovir or another antiviral medicine every single day.
You can also ease the pain and discomfort of the blisters with a local anaesthetic gel or cream.
The best way to avoid catching herpes is to be careful about sexual activity. If your sexual partner has any of the herpes symptoms, you should refrain from any kind of sex. Remember that the infection can be spread by vaginal, anal or oral sex, and that the virus is most infectious when the blisters are present.
When blisters are not present, you should still be careful about having sex with some who has herpes. Ask any male partners to wear a condom and use condoms or dental dams during oral sex.