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What does herpes look like?

Woman sits on the side of a bed looking concerned

Genital herpes is a common sexually transmitted infection that causes a recurring rash of red blisters around the genitals. It is more commonly referred to as “herpes”. Genital herpes is caused by the herpes simplex virus type 2. The herpes simplex virus type 1 causes cold sores, but can also cause genital herpes.

Because genital herpes is caused by the herpes simplex virus, which is incurable, it’s not a condition that will go away after treatment. Instead, you can expect repeated bouts of the symptoms, followed by long periods in which you have no symptoms at all. Over time, the symptoms will ease and become less painful and problematic.


Herpes Blisters

The main symptom of genital herpes is painful blistering around the genitals. Blisters caused by genital herpes develop around the:

  • Genitals
  • Rectum
  • Thighs
  • Buttocks

In women, the blisters can also develop on the cervix.

Herpes blisters are small, red and painful. They will burst, leaving open sores that are very infectious. After this they will scab or crust over and heal without leaving any scarring. The blisters can sometimes last for as long as three weeks without any treatment.


Other Symptoms of Genital Herpes

A primary herpes infection can come with flu-like symptoms such as aches and pains. Recurrent infections also normally start with an itching, burning or tingling sensation in the affected area.

Painful urination can be a symptom of genital herpes, due to the soreness of the blisters. In women, unusual vaginal discharge can also be a sign of genital herpes.


Other STIs Causing Similar Symptoms

If you have sore, red blisters around your genitals then it’s very likely that you have herpes. However, there are some other infections that can cause symptoms you might mistake for herpes.

Genital Warts

Genital warts are small, fleshy growths that develop around the genitals. They are usually painless (unlike herpes blisters) but they can become itchy and inflamed, and in some cases they can bleed.

Syphilis

The first symptom of syphilis is a painless sore on the genitals. It is normal to have only one sore, although some people have several. If you have several sores and they are painful, it is more likely to be herpes than syphilis.

Trichomoniasis, pubic lice and scabies can cause itching and inflammation around the genitals. Scratching the affected area can cause soreness and break the skin, which you might mistake for herpes. However, if there are no blisters present then it is unlikely that you are infected.


How is herpes diagnosed?

If you become infected with genital herpes, there is a good chance you will not notice any symptoms at first. Many people are not affected until months or years after exposure.

The first time you experience symptoms (i.e. an outbreak of blisters), you should visit a sexual health clinic or GP. The test for herpes involves an examination of the affected area, and a swab of the blisters that will be screened for the herpes virus. You may also be tested for other sexually transmitted infections.


How is herpes treated?

Genital herpes can be treated whenever you experience an outbreak. The standard treatment is an antiviral tablet called aciclovir, which works by preventing the virus from multiplying.


How to Avoid Herpes

Herpes is spread through skin-to-skin contact. The virus is most infectious when the blisters have burst leaving open, weeping sores. However, it can be transmitted from the point that a tingling or itching sensation is felt in the area. Remember too that herpes blisters can break out on the thighs, buttocks and around the anus. For this reason, oral sex is risky and using condoms during sex cannot provide 100% protection from the virus.

If your sexual partner is experiencing an outbreak, you should refrain from any sexual activity until the blisters have cleared up and healed completely.

If you have symptoms that you think might indicate herpes, you can use Online Doctor’s secure photo assessment service to get advice from one of our doctors. We also offer prescription treatments for herpes. Visit our sexual health treatments page to find out more.