What it is

Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by the Herpes Simplex Virus. There are two main types of the virus. The first typically causes cold sores on your lips and the second often infects the genital area. It is important to know that you can get sores on your genitals if you receive oral sex from a person with a cold sore on the lips.

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The symptoms

After being infected with herpes, you may not show symptoms, or you may think you have something else. It is important to know that even without signs of the infection, it can still be spread to sexual partners.

But if you do show signs, sores will appear within 2 to 21 days after contact. Unfortunately, the first breakout can be quite painful.

Common signs and symptoms of a genital herpes infection may include:

  • Blisters (sores) may appear inside the vagina and on the vulva (external female organs), thighs, buttocks or anus
  • Blisters (sores) on the penis, scrotum, thighs, buttocks or anus
  • Sores can bleed easily
  • Fever, pain in the joints and flu-like symptoms
  • Pain with urination
  • Itching or tingling
  • Enlarged and tender lymph nodes

Remember:

An infected person can be contagious, even if they have no visible sores.

What it can do to you

Herpes is a chronic infection. That means it never goes away and you'll have to deal with outbreaks your entire life. Outbreaks occur differently on everyone based on their immune system. Some people have monthly outbreaks. Others get them only every few months. About 10% of people never have outbreaks at all.

It helps knowing what triggers an outbreak for you, like stress, your monthly period or too much sun. To prevent outbreaks, make sure you get plenty of rest, eat well and exercise regularly.

How you prevent it

Practice safer sex. Use condoms and other protective barriers during all types of sex (e.g., dental dams). This will definitely lower the risk of getting herpes or other STIs.

It's important to know that with herpes, condoms aren't always 100% effective. That's because condoms protect only the area of skin they cover.

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Don't have oral sex when you have a cold sore, and make sure to avoid sharing sex toys with an infected person. Herpes can be transferred and infect the genital area of your partner(s) through intimate skin-to-skin contact.

If you find out that you have genital herpes, your partner(s) need to be told that they could have an infection - even if there aren't any symptoms. If you have concerns about telling your partner(s), contact a public health nurse. The public health nurse can suggest ways to handle the situation. Your privacy will be respected.

You can get genital herpes from having unprotected vaginal, oral or anal sex and through intimate skin-to-skin contact. Fluids found in a herpes sore carry the virus, and contact with those fluids can cause infection. You can also get herpes from an infected sex partner who does not have a visible sore or who may not know he or she is infected. Don't forget that sharing sex toys, as well as mutual masturbation with an infected person are also risks for contracting genital herpes.

Herpes can spread to other body parts. In fact, it can spread to the eyes, mouth and genitals. If you touch herpes sores, immediately wash and dry your hands. Never kiss or have oral sex with anyone who has sores in or near the mouth.

Remember:

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 think you have it

If you think you have genital herpes, visit your health care provider or sexual health clinic to get tested immediately.

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Get tested

If you show symptoms, your health care provider or public health nurse can swab the blister(s) to find out if you have a herpes infection.

Get treated

Right now, there's no cure for herpes. The good news is it can be managed. Medications can help heal sores more quickly. But they work best if taken within 48 hours after a breakout. As well, medication can also help to lessen breakouts.

Follow up

Herpes can appear more than once. Although there is no cure for herpes, there are ways to manage your herpes breakouts. Contact your health care provider or local public health unit for more information.

For relief during a breakout, you can try:

  • Keeping the area clean and dry. Because you can spread the virus to other parts of your body (especially your eyes), wash your hands well after touching sores. Airing out the sores and keep them dry.
  • Wearing loose-fitting clothes and cotton underwear.
  • Peeing in the shower or in a warm bath, if it's too painful to go to the toilet.

Take medication if your health care provider suggests it. It can make the sores go away faster if taken early, but it can't keep the sores from coming back.

If you decide to talk to your partner(s) yourself, learn how to talk comfortably about it.