Herpes is a virus that causes skin infections on the mouth and lips (cold sores) or on the genitals (vagina, penis and testicles). Herpes is one of the most common STIs in the world. It can cause miscarriage or stillbirth in pregnant women, and babies born with it can have serious health problems.
There is no cure for herpes, but many people eventually clear the virus from their body. You can catch herpes by having unprotected sex (vaginal, oral or anal) or via kissing or foreplay with someone who is infected. A pregnant person can also pass it onto their baby. Some people have one outbreak and never get one again, while others will have regular outbreaks over the course of their lives.
Types of herpes
There are two main types of the herpes virus:
- HSV-1 usually affects the mouth and causes cold sores. However, it can be spread to the genitals through oral sex.
- HSV-2 usually affects the genitals.
Symptoms of genital herpes
Some people with herpes have no symptoms, but usually symptoms appear a couple of weeks after infection. Some people’s symptoms are so mild that they do not realise they are having an attack.
Painful or itchy clusters of blisters and sores can appear on the area around the vagina, penis, mouth, anus (bum) or on other parts of the body. After these blisters break, they will be very sore. The blisters will heal over in 7-10 days.
The virus stays in your body so the blisters and sores can come back, especially if you are stressed or run down, even without having sexual intercourse. An outbreak can also be triggered by your period, stress or injury. Later outbreaks tend to be less severe than the first one.
You may feel a tingling feeling before an outbreak.
The first infection can cause:
- A burning feeling when peeing
- Decreased appetite
- A feeling of being generally unwell
- A headache
- Muscle aches
- Swollen lymph nodes in the groin
- Vaginal discharge
How do you treat genital herpes?
There is no cure for herpes, but there are treatments available to help reduce the symptoms when they occur.
- Visit your doctor or local STI clinic to have herpes diagnosed. They can prescribe a drug to help healing and shorten the infection.
- If the infection comes back often, you might be prescribed an antiviral treatment to reduce the frequency of outbreaks.
- You may need to take this medicine every day or only when you feel the tingling that normally occurs before an outbreak.
- Your partner and recent partners should also be treated.
What happens if you don’t treat genital herpes?
If genital herpes goes untreated, you may experience a lot of pain and discomfort and you could have to deal with regular outbreaks. If you have a weakened immune system as a result of being on a specific medicine or having HIV, the herpes virus may spread to other organs.
Herpes and pregnancy
Herpes can be dangerous for the baby if you develop it during pregnancy or if you have an outbreak while pregnant. The risk of passing it to the baby is highest if you develop herpes for the first time during pregnancy.
A baby who becomes infected with herpes could develop skin infections, developmental delays or brain infections like meningitis or encephalitis. In extreme cases, the baby could die.
People who first contracted herpes before becoming pregnant are much less likely to pass it onto the baby. If you have only ever had one or very few outbreaks, it would be rare to spread it to the baby.
If you are pregnant, you may be put on antiviral medicine a month before delivery to try to prevent an outbreak during labour.
How to look after yourself if you have herpes
- Take your medication as directed.
- Avoid nylon and other synthetic tights and underwear. Instead, wear loose cotton underwear and thigh highs/knee highs instead of regular tights.
- Use disposable gloves to apply medication. This will help to prevent spreading the virus to other parts of your body.
- Do not use cleansers, soaps, sprays or deodorants in the genital area.
- A warm salty bath may help to relive the itching, soreness and problems with peeing that can occur during an outbreak.
- Take painkillers as directed by your doctor or pharmacist.
- Use a cool washcloth on the genital area to help ease the pain.
How can you prevent herpes?
- Use a condom with new sexual partners, but remember that herpes can be spread from skin not protected by a condom. Both male and female latex condoms have been shown to be effective in reducing the risk of herpes transmission.
- If your partner has blisters, avoid sex until the infection is completely healed and there is new skin.
- Avoid oral sex with someone who has cold sores as the viruses are related. However just because you have a cold sore does not mean you have herpes.
Remember: The age of sexual consent in Ireland is 17. If you're over 16, you can consent to medical treatment including any treatment or tests needed.