Genital herpes is a viral infection mainly affecting the skin on or around your genital area, which you can catch through having sex, including oral sex, with an infected person.
Once infected with a genital herpes virus, it stays in your body forever. Some people with genital herpes have outbreaks of sores that keep coming back — the sores will be in the genital area or around the anus (the opening of the bowel). Other people have no symptoms at all and don’t even know they have the virus in their body. So it’s possible to transmit the virus to sexual partners even if you don’t have symptoms (though this is less likely than when you have active lesions).
If you have sores in your genital or anal area, see your doctor who can test for genital herpes by taking a swab of one of the sores, and sometimes by doing a blood test.
Your doctor can also give you advice about how to manage your sex life safely when you have genital herpes. Be reassured that genital herpes is a common condition — don’t be embarrassed to see your doctor about it.
There is currently no known cure for genital herpes, but antiviral medicines are available on prescription from your doctor to treat or help prevent outbreaks. Antiviral medicines stop the herpes virus from multiplying. They can be taken just during an outbreak, starting as soon as the first signs are noticed (episodic treatment), or they can be taken continuously to reduce the chance of having repeat outbreaks (suppressive treatment).
Episodic treatment of genital herpes involves taking a course of antiviral tablets, starting as soon as you notice symptoms of an outbreak, such as tingling or redness on an area of genital skin. Episodic treatment makes the symptoms of the outbreak less severe and more short-lived, and it may also ward off an attack if you start taking the medicine as soon as you notice warning signs of a recurrence.
The use of antiviral medicines on a daily basis as suppressive therapy (along with condom use during sex) can help reduce the risk of transmitting the virus to a non-infected partner. Suppressive treatment also reduces the frequency of symptoms coming back.
Taking these medicines on a daily basis also reduces the amount of virus that is shed, both when sores are present and in between outbreaks, when the skin looks normal.
Talk to your doctor about how long you need to keep taking suppressive treatment. Some doctors advise a periodic break from the medicine to see whether your herpes sores come back.
Suppressive treatment is helpful in people who tend to have several outbreaks a year. People who have fewer than 6 outbreaks a year do not usually need to take antiviral medicines continuously, but they do have the option of episodic treatment.
Last Reviewed: 12 February 2010