About Herpes


What is herpes?

Genital herpes is a long-term condition caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). The virus is highly contagious and spreads from one person to another through skin-to-skin contact, such as during vaginal, anal or oral sex.

There are two types of HSV:

  • Type 1 (HSV-1);
  • Type 2 (HSV-2).

Genital herpes is caused by both type 1 and type 2 HSV.

After you have become infected, the virus remains dormant (inactive) for most of the time. However, certain triggers can activate the virus, causing outbreaks of painful blisters on your genitals and the surrounding areas.

Is herpes a serious issue in Wales?

By age 25, about six out of ten people in the UK carry type 1 and about one in ten carries type 2, more in the sexually active population. If this surprises you, it is because most people who have it don’t know that they do, because they have no symptoms or because they get it so mildly, they do not notice.

The number of diagnoses of first episodes of herpes is continuing to increase in Wales.

Who has herpes in Wales?

There are more cases of herpes in males than females, although the increase in cases of first episodes is occurring in both.

How can I tell if someone has herpes?

There are often few or no initial symptoms. If the person does have symptoms then they will differ between the first infection and the recurrent states.

The symptoms of genital herpes for the first time include:

  • Small blisters that burst to leave red, open sores around your genitals, rectum (back passage), thighs and buttocks;
  • Blisters and ulcers on the cervix (lower part of the womb) in women;
  • Vaginal discharge in women;
  • Pain when you pass urine;
  • A general feeling of being unwell, with aches, pains and flu-like symptoms.

These symptoms may last up to 20 days. However, the sores will eventually scab and heal without scarring.

Recurrent outbreaks are usually shorter and less severe.

How can you get herpes?

Genital herpes cannot usually be passed on through objects, such as towels, cutlery or cups because the virus dies very quickly when away from your skin. However, you may become infected by sharing sex toys with someone who has the virus.

Genital herpes is particularly easy to catch when an infected person has blisters or sores. However, it can be caught at any time, even when someone has no symptoms at all.

You can catch genital herpes if you have oral sex with someone who has a cold sore. A cold sore is a blister-like lesion around the mouth that is also caused by HSV.

Once you have been infected with HSV, it can be reactivated every so often to cause a new episode of genital herpes. This is known as recurrence.

How do I protect myself from herpes?

Although there's no cure for genital herpes, the symptoms can usually be controlled using antiviral medicines.

However, it's important to prevent the spread of genital herpes by avoiding sex until symptoms have cleared up and continuing to use a condom afterwards.

If I think I’ve put myself at risk of herpes what should I do?

You should go and get advice from your GP or at your local sexual health clinic.

Where can I go for advice and support about if I am worried about herpes?

NHS Direct Wales has extensive information about herpes on its website. You can also seek advice from your GP or at your local sexual health clinic.

What are the benefits of getting tested for herpes?

There's no cure for genital herpes, but the symptoms can usually be effectively controlled using antiviral medicines. These medicines can prevent or shorten outbreaks. One of these herpes medicines can be taken daily, and makes it less likely that you will pass the infection on to your sex partner(s).

If you touch your sores or the fluids from the sores, you may transfer herpes to another part of your body, such as your eyes. Do not touch the sores or fluids to avoid spreading herpes to another part of your body. If you touch the sores or fluids, immediately wash your hands thoroughly to help avoid spreading your infection. If you are pregnant, there can be problems for you and your unborn child.

Does herpes increase the risk of getting or passing on HIV?

Yes. Genital herpes can cause sores or breaks in the skin or lining of the mouth, vagina, and rectum. The genital sores caused by herpes can bleed easily. When the sores come into contact with the mouth, vagina, or rectum during sex, they increase the risk of giving or getting HIV if you or your partner has HIV.

If you are experiencing recurrent outbreaks of genital herpes you should also consider being tested for HIV. This may be a sign of a weakened immune system (the body’s natural defence against infection and illness), which may indicate you have HIV.

If you have HIV and genital herpes you will be referred to a sexual health specialist. This is because genital herpes can be a more serious condition in people with HIV.

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