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Genital herpes symptoms are often mild and infrequent, often going unnoticed. For this reason, the majority of people who have genital herpes may be unaware they have it. Learning to recognise genital herpes symptoms can help an individual avoid sexual contact during a herpes episode and hence reduce the risk of transmitting genital herpes 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 usually consists of breakouts or episodes, interspersed with symptom-free periods. The first herpes 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 herpes sores or blisters on or around the genitals.
If left untreated, these herpes symptoms can last up to a month. Subsequent herpes breakouts, called recurrences, are generally milder and don't last as long as the first.
Some people do not experience a severe first herpes episode and just notice occasionally recurring herpes sores or blisters on the genitals that come and go at irregular intervals lasting 3 to 5 days.
Other people may have 'atypical' herpes 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 herpes episode and then not have any further herpes recurrences.
For some people, herpes recurrences can be reasonably frequent and physically uncomfortable, usually presenting as clusters of blisters which burst, forming ulcers, which crust over and heal.
In women, the genital areas most affected by genital herpes are the vulva and the entrance to the vagina. Herpes 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, herpes sores can develop on the testicles.
Less commonly both men and woman can experience herpes sores on the anus, buttocks and tops of the thighs.
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 the first herpes 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. This test can identify whether the virus infection is caused by HSV-1 or HSV-2.
Because it is possible for a person with genital herpes to have another sexually transmitted infection at the same time, a full genital check for sexually transmitted diseases (STIs) should be made. For people with a cervix, this may include having a cervical smear ('Pap smear'). It is important to note that having genital herpes is not associated with abnormal smears.
You can also download our guides in pdf form:
If you would like to get a print copy of the information booklets, fill out the form on the consumer request for printed materials page (it contains sections on Genital Herpes - The Facts, Herpes and Relationships, Herpes and Pregnancy, Facial Herpes).
This website is brought to you by the Sexually Transmitted Infections Education Foundation (STIEF) - an initiative funded by the Ministry of Health through collective District Health Boards (20) to educate New Zealanders about STIs. District Health Boards (DHBs) are responsible for providing or funding the provision of health services in their district.
The medical information in this website is based on the STIEF Guidelines for the Management of Genital Herpes in New Zealand. The New Zealand Ministry of Health supports the use of these clinical guidelines, developed by clinical experts and professional associations to guide clinical care in New Zealand.
The Guidelines are a consensus opinion of the STIEF Professional Advisory Group (PAG). The PAG has representation from nationwide medical, nursing and allied disciplines involved in the management of STIs. The Guidelines are produced by considering available literature, both New Zealand wide and international, and by basing the medical recommendations on the evidence in the literature or reasonable supposition and opinions of medical experts.
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