Island Sexual Health Society Be informed, not surprised!

Genital herpes symptoms, testing and treatment

2006 June 19

Genital herpes is a common “sexually transmitted infection (STI)”:/infections/ caused by two types of Herpes Simplex Virus, the same viruses can cause cold sores (oral herpes). Genital herpes can cause recurring painful blisters on the genital area.

“Make an appointment”:/about/appointments/ at any of our clinics in Greater Victoria to get tested for herpes, or to find out more.

* “How herpes spreads”:#spread
* “Preventing herpes”:#prevent
* “Herpes symptoms”:#symptoms
* “Risks of untreated herpes”:#risks
* “Herpes tests and diagnosis”:#tests
* “Herpes treatment”:#treatment

For further reading, see our “links and other resources”:/resources/external/.

h3(#spread). How herpes spreads

Approximately 20% of people in Canada have genital herpes and 50-70% have oral herpes.

* Herpes is spread through direct contact with an infected area, usually during oral, anal or vaginal sex.
* Both types of the HSV virus can cause genital herpes, so a person with a cold sore may give their partner genital herpes through oral sex.
* Herpes can be passed to a partner even when the infected person does not have an outbreak. This is called “asymptomatic shedding.”
* Most infected people do not know they are infected but can still pass the virus to a sex partner.
* An infected mother can pass it on to her baby during vaginal childbirth.

h3(#prevent). Preventing herpes

To prevent herpes, use good “sex safety”:/sex-safety/ skills including regular “infection screening”:/infections/.

* Using “condoms”:/sex-safety/using-condoms can reduce your risk of transmission but the virus can still be spread through contact with an area that is not covered by the condom (buttocks, inner thighs).
* Use condoms and “dental dams”:/sex-safety/dental-dams to prevent transmission during oral sex.
* Antiviral medication can decrease the risk of transmission but are not 100% effective.
* Personal products like razors and sex toys should not be shared.
* Those with an active herpes outbreak should abstain from sexual activity with an un-infected partner as this is when they are most contagious.
* Sex partners of infected persons should be aware that they may become infected even with the use of condoms or antiviral medications.

“Make an appointment”:/about/appointments/ to get tested for herpes.

h3(#symptoms). Herpes symptoms

About half the people with genital herpes do not have any symptoms and do not even realize they have the virus.

* For those who do have symptoms, herpes often appears as small blisters or sores in, on, or around the genital areas.
* Usually the first herpes outbreak is more severe than subsequent outbreaks and can be accompanied by flu-like symptoms.
* The body stores the virus and it can be reactivated at any time in the future.
* Some people never get a second outbreak while others get outbreaks monthly.

h3(#risks). Risks of untreated herpes

* The herpes virus stays with you and can cause recurrent blisters or sores (the symptoms can vary greatly).
* Often the diagnosis of herpes causes psychological distress
* Rarely genital herpes can cause infection in babies.
* Very rarely HSV can cause serious illlness (meningitis or encephalitis).

h3(#tests). Herpes tests and diagnosis

* Herpes is diagnosed by testing a swab of the infected area.
* Herpes is difficult to diagnose between outbreaks.

h3(#treatment). Herpes treatment

* There is no cure for herpes, but antiviral medications can shorten and prevent outbreaks.
* Daily medication (“suppressive therapy”) can reduce the risk of transmission to partners.