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Patient Information: Recognising Genital Herpes

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Genital herpes commonly causes mild, infrequent symptoms that often go unnoticed. For this reason the majority of people who have genital herpes may be unaware they have it. Learning to recognise symptoms if you do have genital herpes can help an individual avoid sexual contact during an episode and hence reduce the risk of transmitting it to a sexual partner.

For those people who experience more severe symptoms, an outbreak of genital herpes commonly consists of blisters or sores (like cold-sores) on or around your genitals. If you have concerns, or think you may have genital herpes, talk to your doctor.

Genital herpes episodes

Genital herpes usually consists of breakouts or episodes, interspersed with symptom-free periods. The first episode is usually the most severe, and can start with tingling, itching, or burning in or around the genitals, and flu-like symptoms, aches, pains - especially down the back, and the back of the legs. This may be followed by pain on passing urine and an outbreak of sores or blisters on or around the genitals.

If left untreated, these symptoms can last up to a month. Subsequent breakouts, called recurrences, are generally milder and don't last as long as the first.

Symptoms vary

Some people do not experience a severe first episode and just notice occasionally recurring sores or blisters on the genitals that come and go at irregular intervals lasting 3 to 5 days.

Other people may have 'atypical' symptoms such as a 'pimple ' that comes and goes or a 'crack ' in their skin around the genital area . Yet other people may experience a severe first episode and then not have any further recurrences.

For some people, recurrences can be reasonably frequent and physically uncomfortable, usually presenting as clusters of blisters which burst, forming ulcers, which crust over and heal.

Areas affected

In women, the genital areas most affected are the vulva and the entrance to the vagina. Sores can sometimes develop on the cervix.

In men, sores are most common on the end of the penis, the foreskin and shaft of the penis. Sometimes, sores can develop on the testicles.

Less commonly both men and woman can experience sores on the anus, buttocks and tops of the thighs.

The perineal area

The perineal area

The anus

The anua

The buttocks

The buttocks

The sacral ganglion

The sacral ganglion

The penis

The penis

Medical diagnosis

If you have concerns, or think you may have genital herpes, talk to your doctor. Accurate diagnosis of genital herpes is made most easily and correctly at the time of first infection.

The usual procedure to confirm the presence of the Herpes Simplex virus is for the doctor to perform a swab test, in which a sample of the fluid from a blister, or a swab from ulcers, is taken and sent away for analysis.

Because it is possible for a person with genital herpes to have another sexually transmitted disease at the same time, a full genital check should be made. For women this may include having a PAP smear.

It is important to note that having genital herpes is not associated with abnormal smears.

Click here if you would like to get a copy of the information booklet "The Facts: A guide for people with Genital Herpes" (it contains sections on Genital Herpes - The Facts, Herpes and Relationships, Herpes and Pregnancy, Facial Herpes).

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